The debate on relaunching ERA

From April to August 2007, a vast consultation of European scientists, industrialists and politicians took place on how to speed up the realisation of the European Research Area. The objective, which complements the new thinking expressed in the 7th Framework Programme, is to find ways of overcoming the continuing fragmentation of European public research. Below is a non-exhaustive summary of the main Commission proposals expressed in the Green Paper on which this consultation is based.

Janez Potočnik: The post-war rebuilding of Europe was based on steel and coal trading. Today and in the coming decades, Europe’s trading product will be knowledge. © European Commission Janez Potočnik: “The post-war rebuilding of Europe was based on steel and coal trading. Today and in the coming decades, Europe’s trading product will be knowledge.”
© European Commission

The European Research Area (ERA) concept encompasses three interlinked areas:

  • progress towards a new “internal market” for research, in which scientists, technologies and knowledge can move freely;
  • real coordination of national and regional research programmes, at the European level, on the basis of common priorities;
  • the launch of infrastructural initiatives introduced and financed simultaneously at European, inter-governmental and interregional level.

Free movement of talent

The present situation - Researchers continue to see their career prospects blocked by a barrage of legal and practical obstacles which inhibit mobility between institutions, sectors and countries. European and foreign scientists and engineers are equally affected here. A readiness to welcome foreign scientists and engineers is also essential, given Europe’s interest in importing researchers in what is an increasingly global market for ”grey matter“. (Nor is it such a bad thing to export some either.) It is all the more important to ensure Europe’s attractiveness in this field as its own demographic resources are limiting its human potential, whilst obstacles to intra-European mobility are feeding the brain drain.

Proposals:

  • ensuring that job vacancies and financing possibilities are open to researchers on a trans-national basis;
  • introducing a European framework – including regulatory measures where necessary – to govern recruitment, working conditions and geographic/inter-sectoral mobility and to guarantee the “portability” and “flexicurity” (1) which are vital to fully developing the European dimension of research careers;
  • full and complete harmonisation and recognition of professional expertise and training acquired both in Europe and abroad.

Coordination

The present situation - Research financing at national and regional levels (programmes, infrastructures, basic financing of research institutes) is largely uncoordinated. Reforms carried out in different Member States frequently lack any real European perspective and any transnational coherence. All this adds up to a dispersal of resources, excessive redundancies, the non-exploitation of possible knock-on effects and an inability to play the world-leading role that Europe’s R&D capacities should allow it to lay claim to – particularly in meeting the huge global challenges.

Proposals:

  • working together to identify the questions of European interest and the social challenges that cannot be met at national level;
  • making sure national and regional research programme priorities are consistent with these objectives.

Scientific infrastructures & institutions

The present situation - In 2006, the European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) drew up a road map for providing Europe with leading edge technological infrastructures. Achieving this goal would require € 14 billion to be freed up over a ten-year period by the EU, Member States and the private sector together. It is also equally urgent to strengthen existing scientific institutions, which are confronted with major financial and organisational problems.

Proposals:

  • to develop a Community framework for creating new pan-European research infrastructures – and strengthening existing ones – in particular in the form of virtual networks;
  • to create a legal structure that encourages the necessary partnerships to make investment in research infrastructures attractive for private industry;
  • to encourage initiatives, also embracing third countries and international organisations, in which Europeans speak with a single voice (example: the ITER nuclear fusion project).

Sharing and exploiting knowledge

The present situation - Access to and transfer of knowledge acquired in public research and its use by companies and decision-makers are vital to the success of the ERA, where knowledge needs to circulate freely at all levels of society. Major obstacles to innovation are the inconsistency and frequent inadequacy of rules on the management of intellectual property rights (IPR) arising from publicly-funded research. Patent registration remains complex and costly in Europe, and the fragmentation of legal disputes produces legal insecurity.

Proposal:

To introduce the “European patent” which has been on the back burner for years, and which offers cost effectiveness, mutual recognition with other major patent systems across the world and a consistent disputes settlement framework.

Didier Buysse

  1. Portability: guarantee of constant, equal continuity in terms of social security and pension rights. Flexicurity: the combination of labour market flexibility and employment security.
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Strengthening assets

The EU’s 7th Research Framework Programme is explicitly designed to support the achievement of the ERA. Its financing has been considerably strengthened. The launch of the new European Research Council, managed autonomously by the scientific community, is an essential step in promoting scientific excellence in fundamental and emerging fields.

The future European Technology Institute also has the requisite potential to play an important role in creating ”knowledge and innovation communities“. To better coordinate public/private research synergies, European technology platforms have developed long-term visions and strategic research agendas in many vital sectors of the Union’s economy. These are leading today towards ”Joint Initiatives”. During recent years, the ERA-Net system has enabled us to experiment concretely with open coordination of national and regional programmes on a voluntary basis. The EU’s cohesion policy and its financial instruments – the Structural Funds – strongly promote the development of research and innovation capacities, in particular in less developed regions. In this context, an updated Community framework for managing State aid and fiscal incentives for research and innovation was adopted in November 2006.


Mobilising business

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The fragmentation of public research makes Europe unattractive to businesses wanting to invest in R&D. These companies often find it difficult to cooperate or form partnerships with research institutes, in particular from one country to the next. This is despite the fact that the EU is looking to the private sector to contribute two-thirds of the funding to boost research to 3% of the GDP of all Member States together. Recent data show that EU-based businesses increased their global R&D spend by over 5% in 2006. But this growth is still lower than that of the world’s major research areas. Moreover, European companies are investing more in R&D in the USA than US companies are in the EU, and the transatlantic balance of investment deficit is widening.



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