European Union

The 7th Framework Programme in the history of European research

The Seventh Framework Programme didn’t just fall from the sky. It is another chapter in the long history of the European research policy. Conceived at the same time as the European project, this policy has developed considerably over the last thirty years. A product of its history, the Seventh Framework Programme is also characterised by the introduction of certain new developments, which show which direction it may evolve towards in the future. In the history of the European research policy, a small number of ideas have played a key role. It has often taken years for these ideas to be finalised, and for them to produce results. Michel André, an adviser in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, tells the story.

The adviser in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, Michel André, has been closely associated with all European Union research policy developments over the last twenty years. Committed to reflecting on this policy, he is also very interested in its history. The adviser in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, Michel André, has been closely associated with all European Union research policy developments over the last twenty years. Committed to reflecting on this policy, he is also very interested in its history.
© European Commission
1957. Opening of the common market for steel. On the right,
Jean Monnet displays the first ingot of European steel. 1957. Opening of the common market for steel. On the right, Jean Monnet displays the first ingot of European steel.
© European Commission
Since the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Framework Programme has been adopted by the Council of Ministers on the basis of a qualified majority vote. This “limits the tendency to reach agreement on the basis of the largest common denominator, which is getting smaller, as the number of member countries grows and their diversity increases”. Since the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Framework Programme has been adopted by the Council of Ministers on the basis of a qualified majority vote. This “limits the tendency to reach agreement on the basis of the largest common denominator, which is getting smaller, as the number of member countries grows and their diversity increases”.
© European Commission
Etienne Davignon, the Research Commissioner, who at the start of the 1980s, moved the concept of the Framework Programme into the political arena. Etienne Davignon, the Research Commissioner, who at the start of the 1980s, moved the concept of the Framework Programme into the political arena.
© European Commission
The establishment of the European Research Area is a major political objective of the Commission. After an initial phase driven by Philippe Busquin (right), Janez Potočnik, the current Commissioner responsible for Science and Research, is relaunching the process. The establishment of the European Research Area is a major political objective of the Commission. After an initial phase driven by Philippe Busquin (right), Janez Potočnik, the current Commissioner responsible for Science and Research, is relaunching the process.
© European Commission

How long has the European research policy been in existence, how did it come about and how has it developed?

The European Union’s research policy is as old as the European Union itself; as old, more precisely, as the European project, as the initial elements appeared with the creation of what was known at the time as the ‘European Community’, at the end of the 1950s. Both the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ‘Euratom’ treaties - in the fields of coal and steel, and nuclear energy respectively - aimed at building Europe, the former to avoid a return to the wars of the past and the latter to safeguard the future; both included provisions for research.

The third treaty, setting up the European Economic Community (the EEC or ‘Common Market’), did not include anything like this. However, one of its general articles allowed for the launch, during the 1960s and 1970s, of a certain number of research programmes in areas considered priorities at the time, like energy, the environment and biotechnology, etc.

When and why did the framework research programme come about?

The Framework Programme came about at the start of the 1980s, with a view to putting a little order into an increasing profusion of activities by placing them, as the name suggests, in a single ‘framework’. This was done while putting in place, as the name also suggests, a medium-term ‘programme’, with a budget covering several years, rather than just one. This was a ‘French style’ approach to planning, which will not come as any surprise: in the Directorate-General for Research, as in the Commission as a whole at the time, the French played an important role. The Research Commissioner at the time, Etienne Davignon, ‘converted’ this concept into a policy plan, together with a number of other ideas, such as that of the first grant programme for researchers, or the first major European programme in IT technology, ESPRIT.

How, and in what direction, has the Framework Programme evolved?

It has evolved in three main ways: a continuous increase of the budget, from several hundred million euros up to €7 billion per annum in the Seventh Framework Programme; an extension of the Union’s activities in new scientific and technological fields; and the diversification of mechanisms, types of financial support and intervention methods with the regular introduction of new formulas resulting in the present-day portfolio which covers both projects and transnational networks for collaboration in research, individual grants, specific measures for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), support schemes for cooperation and coordination at various levels as well as studies and conferences.

Have there been any historic moments in its past, any developments that are especially important?

We generally refer to two, both of which are associated with institutional aspects and the decision-making process. This is not completely unexpected, bearing in mind the importance of these matters in European affairs.

The first moment was when the research policy appeared in the treaty with the inclusion of a specific chapter on this subject, in the Single European Act of 1987. This chapter merely put together a certain number of provisions that already existed, without really rationalising them, while giving a legal status to existing practices. In a new treaty, there would certainly be much simpler and more logical ways of achieving the objectives. However, from a political and institutional point of view, this was a fundamental development.

Less spectacular, but at least as important, was the decision in the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) to adopt the Framework Programme at the Council of Ministers by a qualified majority vote (the Framework Programme is adopted in ‘co-decision’ by the Council and the European Parliament). Up until then, they had been ‘trapped’ by the constraints relating to unanimous decisions, which allowed a single Member State to veto the whole decision. Adopting a decision by a qualified majority limits the tendency to reach agreement on the basis of the greatest common denominator, which was getting smaller as the number of member countries grew and their diversity increased.

What impact has the Framework Programme had in the past, and what impact does it have at the present time, with regard to research in Europe?

A much more important impact than is generally acknowledged, especially in terms of finance. It has often been stated that the European Union’s Framework Programme only covers a very limited part of the funding for research in Europe. The First Framework Programme represented a tiny fraction of the total public funding for research in Europe at that time, and the Seventh only accounts for 5% of this total in Europe today.

But we should not be thinking strictly in accounting terms. If we consider ‘free’ funds, that is to say, the funding used not for payment of the basic salaries of researchers or the construction and functioning of laboratories, but for research projects, the proportion is very different. In a country like France, European financing accounts for half of the ‘incentive’ credits, while many research departments at British universities are heavily dependent on funding from the Union in order to function. In countries like Spain, Portugal or Greece (not to mention the ten new Member States in eastern Europe), the Framework Programme plays a role that is just as important as national funding, in terms of global funding for research.

What are the consequences of this?

You cannot put such large amounts of money on the table without producing results. Between the national programmes and the Framework Programme there is a ‘two-way mirror’ effect. To a certain degree, the research priorities of the Framework Programme reflect the priorities of the Member States. But the reverse is also true: often, it is in terms of the priorities defined at European level that the Member States determine their own. Of course, taken as a whole, research activities and policies in Europe could be, and should be, better coordinated. Simply due to the fact that it exists and that it has a funding capacity, the Framework Programme does, however, exert a de facto coordination effect that should not be underestimated.

Similarly, it is difficult to deny its impact in terms of bringing the least advanced countries up to date in this field. If Spain and Portugal, for example, have made such spectacular progress with regard to research, it is thanks to the intelligent use to which these countries have put European funding: structural funding, but also funding from the Framework Programme. The same should apply to the twelve new Member States.

Considered from a historical point of view, what does the Seventh Framework Programme look like?

In many respects, the Seventh Framework Programme is a direct extension of its predecessors and represents a continuation of their activities. With this Framework Programme, however, there are two new developments, which have major implications for the European research policy. The first is as follows: for a long time now, in the name of the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ (meaning that, at European level, only the things that cannot be done at a lower level are undertaken), the Framework Programme has basically supported research projects and networks involving transnational collaboration. The core of the Seventh Framework Programme will still be the provision of support for these kinds of projects and networks. According to another principle that has been strictly respected up until now, this support will be provided for research on predetermined topics and subjects in applied, finalised or directed research fields, corresponding to the Union’s major policies in the fields of health, energy, the environment, etc.

With the creation of the European Research Council (ERC), the Union will, for the first time, also be supporting fundamental research projects carried out by individual teams, which are proposed by researchers on subjects of their choice, covering the whole field of knowledge, including the social sciences and humanities. This is a very significant development, because it implies a broader and more flexible appreciation of ‘European added value’ than that which existed before. It also implies the abandonment, if not of the ‘subsidiarity’ criterion as such, then at least of a narrow, rigid and formal interpretation of this criterion; the ERC, in effect, does the same work as national research councils, but at a European level.

And what is the second new development?

That is the introduction of other methods of implementation, apart from the direct management of funding and projects by the Commission’s services. The ERC will be made up of an independent scientific council and an executive agency of the Commission acting under the Commission's control, but operationally autonomous from it. Joint Technological Initiatives (JTIs) will be implemented by sui generis structures that bring the Commission and the private sector together; support activities for SMEs, Marie Curie mobility grants and certain logistical and administrative aspects will become the responsibility of a second executive agency. This evolution can be explained both by the increase in funding for the Framework Programme, without a corresponding increase in the Commission’s manpower, and willingness on the part of the Commission to concentrate on political and legislative tasks.

How could the European research policy evolve in the future?

One could quite reasonably assume that the trends I have just mentioned will continue. Many elements are pushing us in the direction of a European research policy that has ever increasing funding, is more diversified, covers all aspects of research and is implemented under the control of the Commission, but not directly by the Commission.

Such an evolution affords a wealth of promises, but it is not going to be without risks and dangers. By venturing beyond the field where the European research policy has been tried and tested, we are gambling on the fact that the same will apply to other fields and aspects. The evolution towards forms of implementation other than direct management by the Commission represents a challenging enterprise. We must conserve and pass on the unique wealth of knowledge and experience accumulated by the Commission over 40 years of research policy and 20 years of managing Framework Programmes. We must succeed in creating conditions guaranteeing the same level, as is the case with direct management by the Commission, on the one hand of independence and protection with regard to pressure from private interests and attempts at renationalisation and juste retour, and on the other hand of competence and professionalism.

Can research become a real common European policy?

Some people think this is possible, but I don’t believe it will occur. Certainly, research is not a traditional area of sovereignty, like taxes, defence and currency, or of strong national sensitivity, like employment or education. But there is nothing in the evolution of the institutional debate and in the Constitution that would lead us to think that we could go in this direction. The pressure resulting from the need and the awareness of national authorities that many research activities should be conceived and executed at European level should however lead to the gradual de facto ‘Europeanisation’ of an increasing volume of activities.

This de facto Europeanisation does not exclude the reinforcement of links and cohesion between what is done at European level and what is undertaken at national and regional level. Indeed, in all scenarios, even the evolution of Europe in a more ‘federal’ direction, these levels will remain operational. The European Research Area project therefore still retains its significance.

Where does this idea of a European Research Area come from?

It goes back a very long way. It was first suggested during the 1970s, by Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf, then forgotten; it was ‘rediscovered’ (largely independently) in the 1990s, by his distant successor, Antonio Ruberti. It was however a third Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, who transformed it, at the beginning of the year 2000, into the policy project it has now become. It should be noted that all three Commissioners were academics, closely linked to the scientific community; it may be assumed that this made them more aware of the ‘area’ dimension for circulating and exchanging ideas. On the other side, another intellectual ‘family’ of Commissioners, more orientated towards the world of business (like Altiero Spinelli and Etienne Davignon) placed more emphasis on support for industrial policy and the Union’s own activities.

And what exactly does it consist of?

Initially, it was thought that the European Research Area was made up of two components: on the one hand, a ‘large European research market’ where researchers, knowledge and technology would circulate freely; on the other, an area for the coordination of national activities, initiatives and policies. The creation of the ERC and the cautious development of a European policy for supporting infrastructures show that there is a third dimension: the European Research Area is also an area for the implementation and funding of Europe-wide initiatives.

How did the idea of a European Research Area, rejected and forgotten about on two occasions, come to be endorsed by the European Council in March 2000? This is something I have tried to explain and relate elsewhere (1). After a much publicised start, the European Research Area project has clearly run out of steam, and the present Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, is currently attempting to re-launch it.

Have other ideas had a similar history?

Yes, there have been plenty of them. For example, the idea that provides the basis for the creation of the ERC, which is that of a ‘European NSF’ (the equivalent in Europe of the American National Science Foundation), has been floating around in scientific circles for a long time. That of creating a ‘European MIT’, which forms the basis for the EIT (European Institute of Technology) project, has been put forward on at least two occasions, during the 1960s and in the 1980s. The ‘Joint Technology Initiatives’ are the latest manifestation of the idea of a major sector-wide technological programme, illustrated, with certain nuances, by the Esprit programme, the ‘projects of technological initiative’ proposed for the Third Framework Programme (but which never saw the light of day), and the major ‘Integrated Projects’ of the Sixth Framework Programme.

What does the past teach us about the European research policy?

It teaches us that with regard to research policy and many other fields, ideas are few. I have mentioned the idea of a European Research Area and certain others, but there are many more examples. For instance, I have also discovered that what is usually referred to as the ‘Riesenhuber criteria’, had already been defined in practically the same terms in a document submitted by Altiero Spinelli at the start of the 1970s. These criteria, named after the former German research minister with whom they are associated, justify, in the name of ‘subsidiarity’, an action at European level rather than at national level.

In reality, the history of the European research policy could almost be described as that of the gradual development of a small pool of ideas formulated thirty years ago, that, broadly speaking, we continue to exploit today.

Any other lessons?

This history also shows us that ideas do not belong to anyone. Of course, certain people have played a particularly important role: European Commissioners like Altiero Spinelli, of course Ralf Dahrendorf, Etienne Davignon, Antonio Ruberti and Philippe Busquin; national research ministers, starting with Hubert Curien, who has been a key figure in the construction of European research; but also scientists, for example the Nobel Prize winners, John Kendrew and Ilya Prigogine or senior civil servants like Paolo Fasella, a doctor and biologist, who was Director-General for Research at the European Commission for fourteen years. But all in all, the history of the European research policy is the product of a collective and complex procedure involving, apart from certain individuals, many other elements: institutional factors, political context and economic developments, the part played by the pressures and expectations of the scientific community, etc.

Last but not least, what this history teaches us is to what degree the construction process for Europe, which is very fast when observed from a distance and from the outside, proves to be slow when examined more closely and from the inside. A large number of texts written thirty or forty years ago could have been written last night. The diagnosis is the same as it is today, and the remedies recommended are identical. The fact is that situations only evolve very gradually, and ideas take a long time to be formulated, understood, assimilated and accepted, and an even longer time to be finalised and to have a discernible effect on the real world.

  1. “L’Espace européen de la recherche: histoire d’une idée”, Revue d’histoire de l’intégration européenne, 2006, Volume 12, Edition 2

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