Shaping the European research of tomorrow

The Commission, committed to help Member States better coordinate their research efforts, organised a seminar on 2 June on forward-looking activities which underpin future European research policy. Experts, representatives of the public sector and directors of DG Research attempted to identify the needs in this field. Anneli Pauili is the deputy Director-General of DG Research. She reflects on the seminar and future forward-looking activities.

Anneli Pauli, Deputy Director- General of DG Research explains the main principle guiding forward-looking activities promoted by Europe. © European Commission
Anneli Pauli, Deputy Director- General of DG Research explains the main principle guiding forward-looking activities promoted by Europe.
© European Commission

Why are forward-looking activities so important in your opinion for the development of the European Research Area (ERA)?

The financial crisis and its various economic and social consequences, as well as environmental and demographic problems that lie ahead, call into question our production, consumer, living, travel, health, etc. habits. We need a long-term perspective which integrates our current thought processes and creates new approaches. We have to create a more sustainable future. The development of the ERA is part of the response to this challenge. What is good for all of Europe will be, sooner or later, good for Member States. This way of thinking necessitates a paradigm shift and change of mindset for everyone.

The forward thinking has existed for a long time, but a new wave of activity is taking over. These activities combine three dimensions: an abundance of information produced by experts, involvement of stakeholders (researchers, companies, NGOs, public organisations), and the involvement of relevant politicians so they use the results in the creation of policies.

The creation of the ERA with Member States, Associated Countries and the European Institutions encourages everyone to share their visions on future social, economic or environmental challenges. Several of these challenges – the transition to a carbon neutral society, immigration or poverty, for example, are transnational, even global, and thus common for everyone.

How do you evaluate the capacities of Europe in this field?

Many European countries conduct forward-thinking activities. The UK is one of the experienced. The British government has developed a culture focused on the future in each ministry. And the Chief scientist to the Prime Minsters is responsible for a prospective, cross-cutting programme focused on a specific number of themes. In Finland, the technology and innovation funding organisation, Tekes, introduced a continuous cycle of participatory prospects which it added to is strategic reflection process. Together, involved parties (business, research institutes and other organisations) establish an overview of the country’s strategic options

There are still more interesting European examples: the Foresight programme in Sweden, Futuris, AGORA 2020 and France 2025 in France, Research 2015 in Denmark and Foresight Process started by the German research minister.

These initiatives range from activities focused on technology and conducted by experts to activities more social focus with a greater participation of involved parties. The objectives of these initiatives also vary from the identification of strategic technology important for businesses to more general questions on the role of government and the institutional and social conditions of socio-economic change.

Why type of action is necessary on the European level to complete national activities?

On the European level, we have created transnational networks between those who finance and those participate in these forward-looking activities, initiated mutual learning processes between Member States and regions, and expanded upon future vision for European research policy (on the subject of the convergence process “nano-bio-info-cogno” for example). We have also supported the development of tools and the implementation of a system to follow up on forward-looking activities (European Foresight Monitoring Network). In addition, certain “thematic” programmes integrated in research framework programmes support forward-looking projects in their field. This year, the Commission also published a report called “The world in 2025”.

However, today, there still is not a systematic and participative approach to forward-looking activities. But the consensus is growing around the idea that the creation of a coherent Europe research and innovation policy must quickly involve more systematic, efficient and long-term cooperation. We absolutely need to share our visionary knowledge bases and also establish proactive research policies at the European, national and regional levels.

These scenarios and visions developed jointly will select the problems and challenges able to be addressed as part of common programmes and initiatives. European research policy needs to be based on the most systematic, continuous, forward-looking, pan-European activities. It is particularly important so that Member States and Associated Countries can combine their research efforts through “joint programming”. The sharing of such upstream activities could facilitate, in the future, the identification of many needs and weak signals, in order to create a community of views allowing for the identification of programme priorities and to quickly agree upon them.

We must also integrate an international dimension in our future scenarios. First by looking to understand how the main European partners and competitors envision the future and how this vision shapes their research and innovation policies. The pan-European vision must fit into the global context.

What type of forward-look process do you prefer?

Many believe that the EU tries to promote a single way to envision the future and support decision making. However, in my eyes, coherence is not harmonisation dictated from above, but a means for everyone to have access to the knowledge of other, shaving views and networking. A pan-European process must create a link between different forward-facing national activities. It would be flexible, why not “modular”, and would not be bureaucratic. Such a process, and the national systems implicated, must be interoperable in order to authorise joint work. But they need to create visions with pertinence and an added pan-European value, and not simply provide a summary of national visions. It will not simply be finding the lowest common denominator.

Diversity is necessary for me. We need different perspectives and multiple visions of the future of our health systems, for example, and what this signifies in terms of research priorities. But starting to share information, assembling it and making it accessible to everyone, could already form the base of the forward-looking European process founded on the needs that I outlined above.

How do you organise cooperation at the European level?

During the seminar, the six research projects on forward-looking activities funded by the socio-economic and humanities programme of the Seventh Framework Programme were presented. They aim to use the prospect to align research with the Commission’s needs in the long-term by interconnecting the knowledge to identify problems sooner, analysing the emerging innovation models or the future impacts of security and defence policies, and in examining the questions posed by emerging science and technology and the points of view of citizens on science, technology and innovation. These projects will be grouped in a way to develop synergies between them.

Also there is the example of the Standing Committee on Agriculture Research (SCAR), who launched a forward-looking exercise aimed at developing possible scenarios for European agriculture, within the global context, over the next 20 years. This will serve as a base for defining agriculture research priorities in Europe in the medium- and long-term. SCAR also developed a mechanism for monitoring and foresight to send alerts about emerging problems and regular intervals. SCAR’s reports have been used in the drafting of the Communication “Towards a common strategy for a European agenda for agricultural research (2008)”.

Is there a link with the Lund declaration?/

Yes, there is a clear link with the Lund declaration(1) which stipulates, “The identification of major challenges must involved the relevant stakeholders, including European institutions, business, public sector, NGOs and the scientific community, and foresee the interaction with international partners.”

In my opinion, the identification of these major challenges requires a systematic and continuous forward-looking process, based on close interaction between forward thinking researchers and experts on one hand and relevant stakeholders and responsible politicians on the other. It is the only way to insure that forward-looking activities will be effective used to guide research policy strategic choices (this includes joint programming). In other words, they are the based on informed and evidence-based decision making. All while keeping a global perspective.

So the key word is “need” and it requires the implication of users at the first stage. The relevant politicians and stakeholders must work with researchers, and vice-versa, to improve the impact of their forward-looking studies. Citizens also need the opportunity to participate. We need a new culture of forward-thinking. The process is as important and the product itself!

We must concentrate on transversal questions with many view points that those in charge exploit. We must envision the creation of a European platform for forward-looking activity that analyses future challenges, either technological or social. Most major social challenges contain elements of both.

We need involvement of the relevant politicians and stakeholders to shape a better future together, to guide Europe to opportunities, and not only react to problems once they are already there.

  1. The Lund Declaration (SE), adopted 9 July 2009 at the “New Worlds – New solutions” conference stipulates that the EU must identify the major challenges for which public and private research need to develop sustainable solutions

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