SELF INTERVIEW

Architects of European research

17 May 1954. A mechanical digger starts work on the Meyrin site of the future CERN building. © CERN Geneva
17 May 1954. A mechanical digger starts work on the Meyrin site of the future CERN building. © CERN Geneva
A © Communauté européenne
A © Communauté européenne
B © Communauté européenne
B © Communauté européenne
C-D The progress of the European Research Area. This idea, promoted by a number of Commissioners, was born in the 1960s with Ralf Dahrendorf (A), was strengthened under Antonio Ruberti (B) and Philippe Busquin (D) and was recently put back on track by Janez Potočnik (C).
C-D The progress of the European Research Area. This idea, promoted by a number of Commissioners, was born in the 1960s with Ralf Dahrendorf (A), was strengthened under Antonio Ruberti (B) and Philippe Busquin (D) and was recently put back on track by Janez Potočnik (C).
Etienne Davignon initiated various important programmes such as Esprit, as well as support for researchers' mobility and crossborder collaboration networks. © Communauté européenne
Etienne Davignon initiated various important programmes such as Esprit, as well as support for researchers' mobility and crossborder collaboration networks. © Communauté européenne
Filippo Maria Pandolfi and Édith Cresson, Commissioners particularly interested in the economics of research and the opportunities offered by innovation. © Communauté européenne
Filippo Maria Pandolfi and Édith Cresson, Commissioners particularly interested in the economics of research and the opportunities offered by innovation. © Communauté européenne
Filippo Maria Pandolfi © Communauté européenne
Filippo Maria Pandolfi © Communauté européenne
A © ESA
A © ESA
Feu Hubert Curien (A), José Mariano Gago (B) and Fotis Kafatos (C). Three Europeans involved in science and research, and fellow companions of the Commission.
Feu Hubert Curien (A), José Mariano Gago (B) and Fotis Kafatos (C). Three Europeans involved in science and research, and fellow companions of the Commission.
B © Communauté européenne
B © Communauté européenne

Although the creation of European Research has been a joint enterprise, some people appear to have played a particularly important role. Who are its architects? What have they accomplished? What has their contribution been? We asked Michel André, research policy adviser to the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research, to describe what theseprominent figures have achieved... by interviewing himself.

Everyone knows the ‘founding fathers' of Europe (Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul-Henri Spaak) and the politicians who later came to play a key role in the process of European integration, such as Jacques Delors, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Kohl. When it comes to the Europe of Research, though, people tend to assume that it has developed organically. Is this a fallacy?

Absolutely. Quite clearly the historical roots of Europe's research policy run deep and it can only be understood as the product of a series of fundamental but anonymous factors: the evolution of general policy and that of the European integration project as a whole, economic constraints (science is expensive but can be highly profitable), and even external pressure. For instance, during the Cold War, the United States did much to encourage the development of a strong EU research policy to counter the might of the Soviet Union. These combined forces would have been to no avail if they had not been embodied in individuals. It is true to say, though, that the architects of European research are much less household names than the great figureheads of European integration.

Why?

Research policy interests only a very small group of people. It is of no concern to the general public, which is interested only in ‘high politics', economic and social policy and international policy. Neither does it interest researchers, whose passion is confined to science, often the narrow scientific field in which they work. So it is hardly surprising that the key figures of European research should be little known outside the small circle of individuals directly concerned, which number only a few thousand in Europe.

Who are these key figures?

First and foremost there are, of course, a number of European Commissioners for Research. All have marked the history of European research policy in their own way and according to their personal style. In my view, the successive European Research Commissioners over the past 40 years can be divided into two main groups, according to their background and sensibilities. On the one hand, there are those with an academic background, linked closely with the world of science and scientists, who are naturally more open to the idea of the free movement of people and knowledge. This academic group includes the three Commissioners associated with the history of the European Research Area, a project that the current Research Commissioner, Janez Potocˇnik, who can be classed in the same group, is striving to relaunch. They are: Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1970s, Antonio Ruberti in the mid-1990s and Philippe Busquin at the start of this century.

In stark contrast with this group is a second ‘intellectual dynasty' of Commissioners who have closer links with the world of industry and are more interested in the economic and innovation aspects, as well as in the European Union financing its own research rather than in a broad coordination of European research activities: Étienne Davignon and Karl-Heinz Narjes in the 1980s and Filippo Maria Pandolfi and Édith Cresson in the 1990s. Of this group, the person who has made the biggest mark on Europe's research policy is of course Étienne Davignon.

We shouldn't exaggerate the division, though, as there are frequent overlaps and links between the two groups. For instance, Étienne Davignon is considered the founder of the information technology programme ESPRIT, Europe's first major industrial research programme, but he also oversaw the launch of the first programme to support researcher mobility and cross-border research collaboration networks. Even though Philippe Busquin is classed as belonging to the academic group he was also in no doubt that European financing was the key to improving the coordination of national research activities and did not neglect the Framework Programme in the least. Then there is the first European Commissioner for Research, the remarkable Altiero Spinelli back in the early 1970s, whose texts contained all the elements that would later form the two main pillars of the Union's research policy (the Framework Programme and the European Research Area). Although these elements were not consolidated, they were already amazingly well-developed.

Surely others also contributed to the development of European Research?

Yes, of course. A number of scientists with a special interest in research policy issues who were committed to the cause of European research did much to promote European cooperation in this area. Their names figure in the annals of the Union's research programmes and in those of intergovernmental cooperation organisations.

They include physicist Pierre Auger, who was involved in the creation of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the late 1940s, molecular biologist Sir John Kendrew, who helped to create the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and who retained close contacts with the Commission, and chemist Ilya Prigogine, to cite but a few. More contemporary names would include Fotis Kafatos, the current President of the European Research Council (ERC) and chair of its Scientific Council, former Director-General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and a close associate of the Commission for many years.

Shouldn't we also mention a number of national political leaders?

Absolutely. The first name to spring to mind is of course former French Research Minister, Hubert Curien. In the last issue of research*eu, I had an opportunity to describe Hubert Curien's contribution to building European Research. Indeed, he made an extraordinarily large and varied contribution, since there is practically no European scientific cooperation initiative in which he was not involved in some capacity or other (including CERN, the European Space Agency (ESA), EUREKA (the pan- European network for market-oriented, industrial R&D), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European academy of sciences, Academia Europaea).

In fact, his contribution has been so decisive that, if I had to pick just one key individual in the entire European research venture, it would be Hubert Curien. He is not the only national research minister to have played an important role though. Historians will also remember Germany's Research Minister in the 1970s, Heinz Riesenhuber, who gave his name to the famous ‘Riesenhuber criteria' for deciding when an action should be financed at European rather than national level (in fact the criteria existed before he came to power, but he helped to give them a high profile).

Another prominent figure who is highly active in this area is Portugal's José Mariano Gago, the most senior member of the Council of Ministers for Research. A physicist by training (like many research policy leaders), he was Portugal's Research Minister for 10 of the past 15 years, and is a keen advocate of intergovernmental scientific cooperation in Europe. Together with Antonio Ruberti, he is one of the very few high-level politicians to have taken a personal interest in the issue of science education and culture.

Isn't that exaggerating the importance of policymakers?

When a Commissioner or a minister uses such phrases as: "I had the idea," "I decided," "I created," of course you need to take it with a grain of salt. Politicians do not work alone; they rely on an administration that implements the measures that the Commission or minister have adopted and have a team of staff and advisers who supply them with ideas. So we must certainly not underestimate the role played by certain senior Commission officials in the history of European research policy, especially Paolo Fasella, a doctor and biologist by profession, who was Director-General for Research for 14 years and served under five different Commissioners: anyone with a strong personality, as he had, and who holds such a position for so long, inevitably makes a strong mark on the activities for which he or she is responsible.

The same applies to the national domain: the real intellectual father of the EUREKA programme was not France's President François Mitterrand, nor Hubert Curien (who loyally helped to launch an initiative that was very alien to his own way of thinking), or even Jacques Attali, as many people erroneously believe, but rather Yves Stourdzé, the then director of the CESTA research centre, who actually gave Attali the idea. And this is not confined to the field of research policy: the Schuman Declaration was written not by Robert Schuman but by Jean Monnet, or, to be more precise, by Étienne Hirsch, Paul Reuter and Pierre Uri under the broad supervision of Jean Monnet.

Does that mean that the credit given to political leaders is misplaced?

No, not at all, but we need to be realistic about their contribution. Étienne Davignon's idea of the Research Framework Programme came from his staff, in particular a group of French officials (in the days when the French played a key role in the Commission, the Framework Programme concept was governed by a ‘French-style' planning rationale).

That said, it was Davignon who made it the instrument of Europe's research policy. In a similar vein, although the European Research Area (ERA) idea had been tabled on several occasions before Philippe Busquin's time, he was astute enough to see the immediate interest of the ERA and had the necessary skill to turn it into a political project. Some politicians are more visionary than others, and all the better when they are, but what sets them apart is an above-average ability to transform ideas (either their own or other people's) into political realities.

What role have the ‘experts' (i.e. officials and scientists) played alongside policymakers?

Their role has been undeniable, but of varying importance and not always easy to assess. Organisations like the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research or the European Science Foundation (ESF) work with the aid of experts and advisers, specialist academics and heads and former heads of research organisations. Inevitably you will find them among the speakers at the dozens of conferences held on European research policy issues every year. Four prominent figures - Pierre Papon, Enric Banda, Helga Nowotny and Luc Soete, to name but a few of the currently most active individuals from a list of several dozen - have certainly contributed to the development of the Europe of Research.Given that their contribution is an intellectual one, though, it is rather difficult to evaluate.

As I am fond of saying, original ideas are few and far between and for the most part belong to no-one in particular: ideas circulate and are picked up and sometimes claimed as their own by people who sincerely believe that they were the inventers but, in actual fact, such ideas are the product of a collective gestation process. Every scientific cooperation initiative has a host of creators. As I have already said, in the final analysis, the important thing is not so much the ideas themselves as the ability to translate them into policy initiatives and, before that, to spot the best ideas among the myriad proposals (for instance, although Jacques Attali had a hundred ideas a day, it was François Mitterrand who was astute enough to pick out the winners from the heap).

Aren't you attributing too important a role to the Commission?

No, I don't believe so. The Commission and its staff have played a decisive role in building European Research. No surprise there: the Commission was created to advance European integration, and Commissioners and Commission officials are paid to do just that. So the reason for their decisive role is structural: while the goal of expanding European scientific cooperation might be important to some scientists in Europe or to senior national research leaders, it is rarely a priority, and we would be lucky if they devoted an hour of reflection a day to the subject of Europe. By contrast, the staff in the Commission departments concerned spend all their working hours on the subject. It's perfectly logical.

How can we measure the impact of these people's contribution? Wouldn't European Research have evolved without them? Wouldn't others have achieved what they are credited for doing?

That's a hard question to answer. Do people make history? In his famous philosophical conclusion in the novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy's answer was no, according to a fatalistic and determinist rationale that paradoxically, was contradicted and invalidated by the entire narrative that preceded it.

Did Tolstoy the novelist prevail over Tolstoy the historical philosopher? I tend to think so.

In its most radical version, that of ‘counterfactual futures', the question can be reformulated as follows: "Would 20th century history have been very different if Adolf Hitler had died from the complications of measles at the age of five?" Or, to take a wellknown hypothesis commonly cited as an example, "if the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had actually died when he was knocked down by a taxi in a New York street in 1931?" In the case of concern to us, the question takes the following form: "Would the Europe of Research have taken its present form without the individuals mentioned?" As I said at the start, the entire political, economic and intellectual context of the past 50 years has militated in favour of strengthening European scientific cooperation. And ideas about the fields in which it should be conducted and the mechanisms for doing so have been floated freely.

Does that mean that the prominent figures we have just mentioned have had no influence and that, without them, everything would have happened in exactly the same way? No, I don't think that's the case. As I said earlier on the specific subject of Hubert Curien, although most of the initiatives that have come to be embodied in the European research project would almost certainly have been implemented even without these individuals, it would probably have taken longer and not been so successful.

In the final analysis, this does not in the least detract from the achievements of the key figures in question. In research policy as in other fields, major development trends do not come about of their own accord. Women and men are needed to exploit these trends, people with enough imagination to devise new ideas, and who have the tenacity and political know-how to impose them, and the grip on reality to implement them. The architects of the Europe of Research had all these qualities.

That is why they have received such well-earned accolades for their achievements, of which they can be rightly proud, as can we on their behalf.



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European Commissioners for research

Malfatti and Mansholt Commissions (1970-1972): Altiero Spinelli - IT

Ortoli Commission (1973 - 1976): Ralf Dahrendorf - DE

Jenkins Commission (1977-1980): Guido Brunner - DE

Thorn Commission (1981 - 1984): Etienne Davignon - BE

Delors I Commission (1985 - 1988): Karl-Heinz Narjes - DE

Delors II Commission (1989 - 1992): Filippo Maria Pandolfi - IT

Delors III Commission (1993 - 1994): Antonio Ruberti - IT

Santer Commission (1995 - 1999): Edith Cresson - FR

Prodi Commission (1999 - 2004): Philippe Busquin - BE

Barroso Commission (2005 - 2009): Janez Potočnik - SI


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