European research, slow but steady progress

To appreciate just how much of a milestone the ‘European Research Area’ concept represented when it was launched 10 years ago, it needs to be seen as the culmination of a disparate but inexorable long-term aspiration that first emerged several decades ago.

© European Commission
© European Commission

Back in the early 1980s, the Europe of 10 realised that a united front was required to tackle the changes taking place in science and technology. Europe was emerging from the profound upheavals caused by the oil crises, just as a burst of technological growth was triggering rapid change in the leading world economies and in industrial structures. The term ‘information society’ was coined, as Europe looked on in amazement at what was happening not only on the other side of the Atlantic – where the USA was channelling considerable resources into research – but also in Japan and among the other young ‘Asian tigers’.

Europe’s microelectronics industry had fallen behind in its attempt to compete in the microchip race, from which it would, to a large extent, be eliminated. Behind the computer science wave, other waves were forming. Technological innovations were breeding as yet futuristic societal concepts, such as biosociety and the knowledge economy, but policymakers and scientific leaders were fearful that Europe might wake up too late.

Admittedly, the Old Continent still boasted a number of sector leaders, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), all world-ranking centres of excellence created by intergovernmental cooperation agreements. However, apart from these cooperative efforts, all Europe’s other mainsprings of public research, in both universities and scientific bodies, were rooted firmly in the compartmentalised fields of their respective countries.

Two responses

The ‘new technological waves’ elicited two types of response in Europe. The first was the still-active but vaguely defined intergovernmental initiative Eureka. Eureka led to the establishment of a variety of industrial cooperation ventures that were to have a positive technological impact, particularly in the telecommunications and automobile industries. Nevertheless, its structuring influence left practically no lasting trace. By contrast, under the impetus of Belgian Commissioner Etienne Davignon, in 1984 the Commission was mandated to build a research capability that would go beyond the very limited guidelines of the Treaty of Rome: this was when the R&D Framework Programme (FP) concept was born.

Just like Eureka, the first FP promoted grants for funding projects but its guiding principles defined some set objectives. And, most importantly, for the first time budgets were earmarked for this new outline European research policy. Europe’s scientific world, including universities, research centres and industry, enthusiastically espoused this new approach. By 1998, the budget for FP5 had risen to EUR 15 billion. The initial concept had expanded to include a growing range of scientific fields. Environmental science, energy and transport technology, and the human and social sciences were carving out an increasingly important role for themselves, whilst the creation of Marie Curie fellowships boosted researcher mobility.

The mobilisation generated by the future EU’s support for research – providing an attractive new source of funding – led to a boom in cooperative practices in Europe. “The research teams that were, in one way or another, associated with FPs in the field of the exact and natural sciences included all the leading European researchers of world repute, amongst them virtually all Europe’s Nobel Prize-winners,” points out Michel André, adviser to the European Commission’s DG Research. What is more, the FPs have led to cross-fertilisation, with benefits that have been widely distributed among the Member States, thanks to the select quality of the multinational research teams that have been involved in the projects.

A new policy vision

Despite all this, as the new millennium loomed, the overall indicators for research in Europe continued to stagnate in comparison with the USA, as well as with the rest of an increasingly multi-polar world, arousing serious misgivings from both the institutional and economic standpoints. It was becoming clear that the scope of the Framework Programme needed to be defined within a clear policy vision of a European Research Area (ERA). Negotiated briskly by Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for research in Romano Prodi’s Commission, and José Mariano Gago, the Portuguese minister serving as President of the European Council of Research Ministers, this change of direction was effected with the creation of the Lisbon strategy, which made the ERA one of its cornerstones.

As Michel André wryly states: “With the ERA, the boundaries between what depends on the EU, what is European and what happens on Europe’s territory, became more blurred than ever …” This is only a superficial paradox though, because the ultimate aim of the ERA is not to bring down borders, but to make them more porous. The term European Research ‘Area’ is a deliberate reference to the concept of free movement, a key principle of European integration from the very outset. Freedom of movement for people, goods, capital and services has already been recognised and must now be applied to knowledge and the researchers who produce it.

A chapter still being written

Ten years ago, the ERA opened a new chapter in Europe’s history, not by abolishing the existing FP structure, but by ramping it up. With FP7 (2007-2013, worth EUR 54 billion), the annual budgets have increased by almost 50% in real terms. In response to strong demand from Europe’s scientific community, one of its most novel features is the new European Research Council (ERC), a competitive entity with a budget of EUR 7.5 billion between now and the year 2013 to spend on basic science.

As a Community instrument, the FP now forms part of a much more open and global approach. In 2007, the Commission published a green paper on the ERA at the initiative of current research commissioner, Janez Potočnik. It involved a far-reaching consultation with public and private stakeholders, which culminated, in 2008, in five initiatives for remedying research fragmentation in Europe (see chart on page 18). Following the Ljubljana meetings, it also resulted in the adoption of a new form of governance for European research, aimed at achieving the goals of Vision 2020 for the European Research Area, shared by the entire Union. “The policy approach defined at Ljubljana points the way towards a more structured and coordinated ERA,” says Jana Kolar, Director General of the Science Directorate in Slovenia’s Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology. Its adoption will impact heavily on the R&D policies of Member States, which will need to adapt to changes in the research landscape in order to remain competitive.”

These new initiatives, implemented in close partnership with the EU Member States, are designed to facilitate the creation of the large-scale scientific and technical infrastructure that Europe needs; to set up joint research programmes with national authorities; to abolish barriers to researcher mobility and careers; to facilitate cross-border knowledge-sharing and to create a common strategic framework encompassing the international cooperation activities of Member States and the EU.

Alongside these ‘direct’ actions, the ERA serves as a framework for restructuring the very foundations of Europe’s research system, starting with the modernisation and autonomy of universities, an issue that is being widely debated at present (see article page 26).

Didier Buysse