The ERA for dummies

The European Research Area (ERA) - what is it? This project to unite Europe's many and varied research systems is the cornerstone of Europe's economic development. Yet the ERA is often seen as an obscure European initiative, both by researchers and the general public. We offer an attempt at clarification.

A long and arduous road

Another area for action is research infrastructure, which is crucial to keeping European researchers inside EU borders and in attracting the best researchers from around the world. The LHC (Large Hadron Collider), the vast particle collider at CERN, in Geneva, is one of the rare examples of European cooperation in the field of research infrastructure.

The scale of the investment required in this area is such that only the combined resources of Europe, the Member States and the industrial sector can provide it. The plan to create a European Institute of Technology (EIT), with the aim of rivalling the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, is part of this desire to provide Europe with more infrastructures of excellence.

The Green Paper also stresses the importance of opening up the ERA to cooperation. This aspect is central to the European Science

Foundation (ESF), an NGO that brings together research organisations from 30 countries. "Determining the investment required in science on the basis of national or even European priorities limits the prospects for many fields of science, such as fundamental research, climate and genetics," explained John Marks, deputy head of the ESF, at a conference on the subject in November 2007. "International cooperation between researchers drawn from a wide range of scientific disciplines is often necessary, as finding the answers requires cooperation between the best groups and these are not necessarily in Europe, let alone in a single country.

" The road to creating the ERA is therefore set to be difficult and full of pitfalls. However, as imperfect and hermetic as it may be, it remains an inspiring concept and, when compared with other economic blocs, the foundations of the European Research Area are not so shaky. Asian leaders are in fact trying to construct a similar platform to the ERA in Asia, at the initiative of South Korea. "In this respect, the European context is much more promising than our own. You have a single currency, a relatively uniform market, and people who can travel within it without a passport or visa. European integration is an impressive advantage," declares Je-Chang Woo, director-general of the Korean Research Foundation.

It all began in 2000 when Philippe Busquin, Research Commissioner at the time, presented to the Lisbon European Council a future vision of the world of EU research in which scientists would work together systematically on the basis of their excellence. It would be a world where the transfer of knowledge from universities to industry would favour rapid innovation, with research infrastructures that would be the envy of the planet.

This proposal was at the heart of the Lisbon Strategy, a policy approved by the Council which laid foundations for the future development of the European economy. The starting point for this strategy was that European industry was not what it once was. Of course, many industries were still to be found in Europe, but other economic blocs, such as Asia, were now establishing themselves as the world's principal production sites, aided in part by a less costly workforce and the opening up of world markets.

European leaders therefore decided to stake the European Union's future on something in which it had always excelled: science and technology. Knowledge would thus secure the future of the Old World, through the creation of a knowledge-based society rooted in education, innovation and research: three components so fundamentally interdependent that they came to be known as the knowledge triangle. "While technological progress creates the jobs of tomorrow, it is research that creates the jobs of the day after tomorrow," declared the Commission communication that launched the ERA. In future, Europe's added value would thus be based on the new knowledge created within the ERA, a source of jobs and profit.


But there was a long way to go before we would see the emergence of this knowledge society whose virtues were so lauded by the creators of the Lisbon Strategy. While in the year 2000 Europe produced a third of the world's scientific knowledge and occupied a leading role in many fields - aeronautics and telecommunications, for example - its global research investments, both public and private, were far below those of its principal rivals, namely the United States and Japan. However, it should be stressed that this comparatively low level of investment was not uniform. There is great variety in Europe when it comes to promoting science. Sweden and Finland have among the most efficient R&D of any country in the world, while in the new Member States, where resources are often fewer, the sector is sometimes precarious.

This brings us to another weakness: R&D systems in Europe are struggling to break free of the national framework. Research cooperation has most certainly developed along with EU integration, with EURATOM for example, followed by the emergence of the Framework Programmes (FPs) from 1984. But at the same time, European research suffers from a lack of synchronisation between Member States. The result is not only that Europe invests less than its competitors, but it also invests less efficiently. Several countries finance identical research at national level when these resources would be put to better use within a project on a European scale.

What has been done

Once the ERA had been laid down in principle at the Lisbon Summit, an action plan was published in 2002 proposing the necessary ways forward to make it a reality. ERA-Net was launched to provide financial support for the networking of national and regional research programmes. This project invited all programme managers and financing institutions to propose concrete measures designed to coordinate their actions with their cross-border counterparts in specific fields of research. In particular, this approach gave rise to the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) and to HESCULAEP, which aims to harmonise research in the field of emergency medical care.

The 7th Framework Programme (FP7) also keeps in line with this action plan. In addition to a considerably increased budget - €50.5 billion as opposed to €18 billion for FP6 - and a streamlining of the administration, it acquired new tools such as the Joint Technology Initiatives ( JTIs). These make it possible to pool the resources of the EU, the private sector, and national programmes with a view to launching more ambitious research projects in key fields whose development would benefit industries as well as individual Member States and Europe. The first two JTIs were launched in 2007: Artemis, concerned with on-board computer systems, and IMI, an initiative for innovative medicines.

This period also ushered in the European Research Council (ERC), the first European structure to be dedicated specifically to financing fundamental research, a field essential to the emergence of technological innovations.

Independent in terms of its functioning and its management (by experienced researchers), the ERC awards research grants according to selection criteria that are based solely on scientific excellence. Only one year after it was launched, the ERC already has promising results: more than 10 000 proposals have been submitted in response to its first two calls for projects.

But alongside these major steps forward by the ERA some serious setbacks were also suffered. The GALILEO project, set up to provide Europe with its own satellite navigation system, revealed the limits of public-private sector partnerships. The system was supposed to be operational in 2008, but in May the consortium of industrialists charged with constructing GALILEO handed in its resignation, judging too great the financial risk they were expected to bear without the guarantee of a sufficient return on their investment on the part of the public sector. As a result, the European Union and Member States took on board all the costs required for the deployment of GALILEO.

Another failure concerns the financing of R&D that has fallen far short of the targets set out in the Lisbon Strategy. In 2002, the European Council followed up its statement of principle by setting at 3 % the share of GDP (gross domestic product) that each Member State should allocate to research by 2010, with 2 % from the private sector and 1 % from public funds. Between 2000 and 2007 this global figure remained stagnant at under 2 % and sometimes even decreased. Also, the private sector covers on average just half of the investments, rather than the two-thirds as planned. It remains to be seen, however, whether the indicators used to measure the sector's dynamism are the right ones. A report published in 2008 by the Bruegel think tank (1) concluded that the intensity of R&D, which reflects the share of GDP allocated to scientific activities, is perhaps not the most pertinent criterion. "The indicator does not take into account a Member State's degree of industrial specialisation. Luxembourg, a country very much focused on finance, will naturally invest less in research to guarantee its growth than Finland, which specialises in information and communication technologies," explains Bruno van Pottelsberghe, the report's author.

What remains to be done

In 2007, winds of change blew across the ERA. Janez Potocˇnik, the Research Commissioner, published a Green Paper setting out six areas requiring a sustained effort to build the ERA. To gauge support for the concept on the part of actors in the field, the document was submitted to public consultation. The results were published in 2008 and show broad support for the ERA among scientists, even if all agreed that the remaining challenges are huge.

The Ljubljana Process, launched in April by the European Union's Slovenian presidency, lent support to the new ERA action plan set out in the Green Paper. This stresses the effort to be made on the political side, namely the need to: involve regions more closely in the development of European research, improve indicators used to measure R&D performances, and establish long-term partnerships between the Commission and the Member States. The latter recently took concrete shape in a new European partnership for researchers, within which the Commission and Member States undertake to achieve measurable progress in the field of the recruitment, social security and working conditions of researchers.

Mobility is in fact one of the principal pillars identified by the Green Paper. In Europe, national borders too often impose limits on the career prospects of researchers, many of them choosing to move to the United States as a result.

But mobility is far from being the sole area for improvement. Improved management and increased autonomy for universities is another fundamental requirement for developing the ERA, as is a more rapid transfer of knowledge, for which the removal of the many obstacles in the path of defining a European system of patents is particularly pertinent.

Julie Van Rossom

  1. Bruno van Pottelsberghe, ≪Europe's R&D: Missing the wrong targets?≫, Bruegel Policy Brief, numero 2008/03, February 2008,


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Key dates

1957 - Signing of the EURATOM Treaty, establishing European cooperation in the field of nuclear research.

1984 - First European Framework Programme. The FPs are the principal European instruments for research funding.

2000 - The Lisbon European Council ratified the concept of the European Research Area.

2001 - The European Union decided to build GALILEO, the European equivalent of the GPS developed in the United States.

2002 - First calls for proposals for ERA-Net.

2006 - First communication on creating a European Technology Institute (ETI). Birth of the European Research Council (ERC).

2007 - Launch of the 7th Framework Programme. Publication of the Green Paper ‘The ERA: New prospects' - Public consultation. Launch of the first Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI).

2008 - Launch of the Ljubljana Process.