European Union

Building the ERA of knowledge and growth
Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research

European research is moving ahead with the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7). This linchpin of the European Research Area is the result of the research, academic and business communities working with the European institutions to produce a programme that responds to the EU’s policy objectives to foster a competitive and sustainable Europe. It is a privilege to be responsible for this state-of-the-art research programme, but the challenges do not stop here. The next step is to launch a debate on how we can realise an open, strong and dynamic European Research Area.

Janez Potočnik visiting the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU), Karlsruhe (DE). Janez Potočnik visiting the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU), Karlsruhe (DE).
“We must avoid fragmentation and make it easier for researchers to coordinate
their activities.” © CERN “We must avoid fragmentation and make it easier for researchers to coordinate their activities.” © CERN

FP7 will continue with actions that have been successful in past programmes such as Marie Curie exchanges, fellowships and placements. We will be able to make research more easily available to small and medium-sized companies. Such companies often do not have the resources to invest in research, but they do have the capacity for innovation and this is essential for their growth and survival.

A ‘Champions League’ of European research

Besides this continuity, there are also some exciting new elements in FP7. One of these is the creation of the European Research Council (ERC). This is the first time that the EU has a dedicated mechanism to fund great ideas coming directly from its ‘brightest’ and best researchers. I like to think of it as a ‘Champions League’ of European research. Never before has there been a research funding mechanism at European level that does not require a consortium of partners from different countries, and does not have thematic priorities identified in advance. The ERC will select the most promising and interesting ideas, and decisions on what those are will be taken autonomously by the scientific community.

The European Technology Platforms, uniting researchers, industry and other stakeholders around a common vision and research agenda, will continue their important work and influence the priorities of FP7. The Joint Technology Initiatives will take the work of some Technology Platforms a step further, by creating a new type of public-private partnership.

We are also supporting, for the first time, the development of truly European research infrastructures, to be available to all our scientists. By doing so, we will help to ensure that access to the necessary facilities is not an accident of geography.

Not an end in itself

Creating the Research Framework Programme is certainly an achievement, but it is not an end in itself. The real work starts now, with researchers, scientists and companies investing in research and innovation. Research should be at the centre of our thinking about how to secure our long term economic, social and environmental future.

Knowledge and innovation for growth underpins all components of the Lisbon Strategy. Today's economy and citizens’ wellbeing rely on the progress of knowledge and its transformation into new products, processes and services. But to be able to compete through knowledge, we need to keep research at the top of the political agenda.

We sometimes forget that knowledge is Europe’s greatest resource. Europe does not have rich natural resources. We cannot compete with low wages, we are committed to a society with social security to protect the vulnerable and we care about the environmental legacy we leave for future generations. So our only real option is to make the best possible use of our well-educated people, our top-class facilities and our ability to turn knowledge into innovative services and products.

Investing to create and preserve jobs

Research helped us to get where we are now, and it will help us move further forward, but only if we embrace it. That is why FP7 is important, although it is not enough on its own. There is an urgent need for Europe to invest far more in education, research and innovation. This is not just a nice, modern idea. It is essential to create and preserve jobs.

Knowledge is an area where Europe can really make a difference. But, in building awareness of Europe’s potential, it is essential that we act as one. By getting people, facilities and knowledge together, from across the EU and beyond, I want to create a true single market for scientists, a European Research Area.

No time to lose

The idea of a European Research Area (ERA) came about in 2000, the same year as the Lisbon Strategy. Now, seven years later, it is the time to take stock of where we are. With increasingly global challenges to tackle, of a size and scope that leaves us no other choice but to join forces, we have no time to lose. We must avoid fragmentation and make it easier for researchers to coordinate their activities. For that reason, the main orientation of ERA should be issues such as infrastructures, researchers’ mobility, joint national and European programming of research in areas such as energy or health and of course international and multi-disciplinary cooperation.

By creating ERA, we can provide infrastructures that would be out of the reach of most national budgets and we can provide exchange programmes which bring researchers from all over the world to work together. But most of all we can do together what we cannot do alone. It is not only a debate about money I want to start, it is also a debate about how far we dare to go to create a true knowledge-based society. I want to see if we are ready to create a ‘United States of Research’ based in Europe. And here I do not mean ‘states’ just in the sense of countries or nation states or Member States. I mean states as in states of development, states of cooperation, states of innovation – in short, states of the future, united and working together.

A 2020 vision of ERA

In the coming weeks, the Commission will publish a Green Paper which provokes debate about the 2020 vision of ERA and the main directions for the future. Thereafter, we will take the time to engage all those involved in the issues – scientists, policy makers, the business community and universities. The idea will be to bring forward concrete proposals to strengthen the European Research Area in 2008. Seven years on, awareness of the contribution of research to our development and well-being is even greater. I trust that the European research community will contribute actively to this debate. Together we can bring about some real changes in the European research landscape.