“There is only strength through unity”

It is now nearly 10 years since the European Research Area was launched. What progress has been made? And what remains to be done in building a Europe-wide research system that is coherent and complementary? José-Manuel Silva Rodriguez, head of the DG Research at the European Commission, explains.

17 July 2009. José Manuel Silva Rodríguez, Director-General of DG Research (on the right) and Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director-General of CERN, sign a memorandum of agreement designed to strengthen the long existing partnership between these two organisations.© European Commission
17 July 2009. José Manuel Silva Rodríguez, Director-General of DG Research (on the right) and Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director-General of CERN, sign a memorandum of agreement designed to strengthen the long existing partnership between these two organisations. © European Commission

Few people have heard of the European Research Area (ERA). Could you explain what the ERA is and describe the benefits it brings for the man in the street?

The ERA was designed for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who dedicate their working lives to science and technological development in Europe. It is thanks to them that human knowledge is progressing, that European companies are innovating, that our quality of life is improving and that Europe is establishing itself as a major knowledge centre at global level.

The ERA aims to facilitate their work, to enable them to practice their profession under the best conditions and thereby permit maximum progress in research in Europe. How? Above all, by freeing researchers from the limits that national borders impose on their work and on their creativity. Wherever they are in Europe, scientists must be able to cooperate with their peers without obstacles, use the best research equipment and have access to all the knowledge available on the continent. They must also be able to work in the European country where their skills will be put to optimal use and to lend added value to their work by cooperating with any scientific institution or company able to exploit his results with a view to further progress in knowledge and innovation in Europe.

The ERA therefore encompasses a full range of research activities, programmes and policy initiatives designed with a transnational perspective in Europe in order to offer our scientists a laboratory of continental dimensions. Major steps have been taken to realise this concept, but it is far from complete. Researchers still come up against too many national barriers. We must therefore continue to progress on the three fronts that constitute the ERA: creation of a ‘single market’ for research and technology; coordination of national research activities, programmes and policies; and the development, where justified, of initiatives and instruments designed from the outset to function at European level, such as the EU framework programme for research.

How does European research rank when compared with its international competitors?

Very highly! Europe has research centres and universities that are recognised worldwide, excellent quality researchers, reference infrastructures and an exceptional knowledge capital.

The problem is that this position is under threat. As a proportion of its national wealth, or GDP, the United States invests much more in research than Europe does. Other major world regions, such as Asia, are today becoming knowledge centres and in some fields are already as attractive as the EU. Of course I am thinking of China, but also India and Brazil. Research in these countries is admittedly not yet completely comparable to what is being done in Europe and the United States, as there are fewer fundamental discoveries and more incremental development. But these countries possess immense human potential and an extraordinary dynamism. Their strength, like that of the United States, is to offer a vast research area on a scale that is incomparable to that of any one European country alone. That is why the only way to maintain and even improve the position of European research at world level is to develop the ERA.

Is the economic crisis jeopardising progress by the ERA?

There was a danger. When the crisis broke there could have been a great risk for the EU countries to give in to the temptations of protectionism, including in the research field that is, after all, what is most precious to each country. Fortunately this pitfall was avoided. In December 2008, when the crisis was it its peak, the 27 EU countries adopted unanimously, with the Commission, a ‘vision’ designed to speed up development of the ERA. In budgetary terms, initial indications are that nearly all the European countries understood the importance of supporting research as a means of working their way out of the crisis. Most of them therefore maintained the budgets allocated to R&D.

The situation is more difficult for companies, especially small businesses active in R&D, because they are much affected by the credit crisis. To help them, the Commission, through the European Investment Bank, increased the sums allocated to loans to fund research and innovation. We set up three major partnerships with industry to support R&D in those sectors hardest hit by the crisis: the motor industry, construction and manufacturing technologies.

In 2010, the ERA will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. What has it accomplished to date? And what are the major challenges that await it?

When Commissioner Busquin launched the objective to create the ERA in 2000, we were nowhere. It seemed natural for research to be essentially programmed and carried out in almost sealed national compartments. Over the past decade we have witnessed a genuine revolution in thinking. All European governments have understood that when it comes to research there is only strength through unity. For example, we established a Charter and Code of Conduct to which hundreds of European institutions have signed up. The 27 Member States agreed on the priority research infrastructures to be built in Europe. Today we envisage creating vast transnational programmes to meet the major challenges of contemporary society. These programmes will be implemented with the research budgets of the Member States in addition to the EU framework programme.

But what remains to be done is also considerable. It is to move from the theory, from good intentions, to practice: to apply fully and concretely the principles of the charter and code for researchers; to obtain the budgets needed to launch the building of priority infrastructures and, in the near future, joint programmes. The road ahead is long and we must move quickly if we are to remain competitive.

There is also another challenge that must be highlighted. The ERA must not be regarded as an area isolated from the rest of the world. On the contrary, European research draws sustenance from intense exchanges and interaction with our foreign partners. The ERA must help European researchers to work together with the world’s best scientists. To date, each country has developed its international scientific cooperation activities in almost perfect isolation. Each national ministry, even each research centre director or university rector travels to China or the United States in almost total ignorance of what his peers in the other EU countries may have discussed with the same interlocutors the day, week or month before. This fragmentation is extremely damaging for the global impact of European research. Our major partners do not find themselves dealing with a major scientific power but with a succession of divided small or medium-sized countries. That is why the Commission last year proposed to launch a genuine European strategy for scientific and technological cooperation with the rest of the world, a strategy to enable all the EU countries to express themselves coherently at world level and to promote their common interests. All the Member States agreed to go down this road and have set to work with the Commission. It is a long-term job but, in my mind, by so doing we are preparing for major progress for European research and its global reach.

Interview by research*eu