Where are the frontiers of research?

Will the European Research Area one day open its borders? In any event, it is aspiring to have an international dimension. The creation of a new partnership between Member States and the Commission and the creation of the SFIC, the Strategic Forum for International Cooperation, in late 2008 is evidence of this.

Iter, a symbol of long-term, multi-continental cooperation excellence. Its flag flaps in the breeze on 27 May 2009, planted in the exact spot where excavation work will begin this year on the enclosure for the Tokamak magnet. © ITER
Iter, a symbol of long-term, multi-continental cooperation excellence. Its flag flaps in the breeze on 27 May 2009, planted in the exact spot where excavation work will begin this year on the enclosure for the Tokamak magnet.

The European Research Area (ERA) is first and foremost European. But it is also open to the world, with International scientific and technological cooperation as one of its basic missions. Europe can do many things alone, but to make further scientific progress, tackle global challenges and attract the best researchers, collaborations with scientists around the world are more necessary than ever before. In the words of European Commissioner for Research Janez Potočnik: “Global challenges call for global responses.”

International cooperation is for real!

Cooperation in science and technology (S&T) is of course nothing new, as evidenced by the number of S&T professionals in Europe coming from outside Europe, which has almost doubled since 2000, and the constant increase, over the past 15 years, in the number of publications co-signed by these same scientists. The number of joint-patents is also following the same trend. Besides research topics usually open to international cooperation (health, food and biotechnology, new information and communication technologies, nanotechnology, energy, environment, transportation, human and social sciences, space and security), new global issues like climate change, infectious diseases and population aging are emerging. These are of interest to the scientific community well beyond the borders of Europe.

If international cooperation in science and technology already exists between Europe and many countries, all is far from perfect. The strategic imperatives, on which everyone is agreed, are limited by serious obstacles. In particular the multiplicity of public players and a wide variety of research priorities are enough to discourage even the most determined of prospective international partners.

A necessary strategic framework

We are not talking here of creating a global research area. Strengthening the international dimension of European research is not intended to replace existing international cooperation mechanisms, as enshrined both in the framework programmes and in Member States’ bilateral cooperation programmes. Nor are we talking of fresh project funding. The concern rather is to find the most appropriate ways to benefit from international cooperation, avoid duplication of funding and effort, and react as single rather than as separate entities.

In September 2008, the Commission proposed to Member States to partner with it in a new European strategic framework for international cooperation in science and technology. “Member States and the European Commission are involved in a whole range of research activities with third countries. The lack of a common strategy at European level has led to duplication, resulting in a loss of impact and effectiveness of research”, it pointed out to motivate its initiative. In a series of recommendations adopted in December 2008, the Council backed the need for such a partnership.

Thus was born the SFIC (Strategic Forum for International Cooperation). SFIC is a specific configuration of CREST (Scientific and Technical Research Committee), the consultative body which assists the Council and Commission with the implementation of EU research programs. Chaired by a Member State on a 2-year rotating basis (currently, until 2010, Germany, represented by Volker Rieke, Deputy Director-General for European and International Cooperation, Ministry of Education and Research), the SFIC is a direct response to the invitation by the Council to Member States and the Commission to better coordinate their scientific and technological cooperation with other regions of the world and make it more effective. The goal is to pinpoint opportunities and obstacles to cooperation between EU and third countries. Another objective is to create ways to interact with them to identify priorities and actions.

Two key questions

How can information-sharing be improved? How can cooperation priorities for Europe be identified, both in terms of particular countries and particular themes? With an initial meeting in February 2009, a second in May and others to follow in October and December, the SFIC has set a tight schedule of consultations and exchanges to develop responses to these two strategic questions. Defining a general model would be too easy, as major differences exist in the ways of understanding the many research topics and in cooperation with various regions of the world. For example, research in the framework of ITER calls for equipment mainly concentrated on a single site, while research into global warming will necessarily require geographically more dispersed instrumentation. Similarly, cooperation with developing countries calls for a different approach than that with industrialised countries.

Giving the ERA an international dimension is set to be a long process. Work has just started and the different groups are advancing in parallel. Right now, the SFIC’s primary aim is to better understand the various channels of international cooperation, particularly in terms of mechanisms and instruments used by Member States and the European Community. This will open the way to more vigorous European partnerships, a more dynamic strategic framework, and more obvious added value.

The goal of the partnership and the strategic framework is, in the words of Commissioner Potočnik, “to engage with our Member States to transform the maze of European research into a European Research Area open to the world, which attracts the best minds and contributes to addressing global challenges”.

Clara Delpas

  1. Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Ethique animale, Paris, PUF, 2008.


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The SFIC’s missions

  • Sharing and structuring information on the science and technology (S&T) activities and objectives of the various partners.
  • Pooling knowledge about third countries, in particular analysis of their S&T capabilities.
  • Ensuring regular consultation between the partners in order to identify their respective objectives and common priorities in terms of S&T cooperation with third countries (“what and with whom?”).
  • Coordinating activities of a similar nature implemented by Member States and the EU.
  • Proposing initiatives to be implemented with appropriate ways and means.
  • Networking of Member States’ and the Commission’s scientific advisors in key third countries.


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