Within the European Commission, the role of the Research Directorate-General is to manage and promote activities that help to provide the EU with an integrated and world-leading research capability. The vision is to build a European Research Area (ERA), in which Community-wide cooperation in science and technology mobilises the resources needed to achieve excellence, raise research efficiency and effectiveness, makes Europe more attractive to scientists and technologists from around the world, and encourages the free movement of knowledge.
2008 will be remembered as the year when decades of seemingly assured economic stability came to an abrupt end with the sudden slide into global recession. In the new reality, it is more crucial than ever that scientific research should continue to drive the production and exploitation of knowledge as the basis for European prosperity and competitiveness.
The main vehicle for EU support of research and technological development (RTD) is the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which entered its second year in 2008, when many of the projects launched under the former Sixth Framework Programme also reached their conclusion. In 2008, some 14 000 proposals were received in response to 55 calls for proposals, with more than 72 000 applicants. Approximately 2 500 proposals were retained for funding.
The overarching objective of EU research policy is to develop the European Research Area (ERA) as a European internal market for research that strengthens European scientific and technological capacities and excellence. It does this both by increased competition and coordination, and by helping to overcome the geographical boundaries and institutional, disciplinary and sectoral ridigities facing research stakeholders. The ERA is also central to the Lisbon strategy for achieving sustainable growth and jobs in the globalised economy, by transforming Europe into a more dynamic and open knowledge-based economy.
With a budget allocation of almost €54 billion, the seven-year (2007-2013) FP7 – the main instrument of EU research policy – is considerably larger in size and scope than its predecessor (€19 billion). As well as retaining the best aspects of FP6, it has introduced a number of radical innovations to expand content, facilitate implementation and streamline administration.
As a follow-up to the 2007 Green Paper ‘The European Research Area: new perspectives’, the Ljubljana Process, announced in April 2008, introduced a new policy of research partnership between the Commission and Member States with the aim of accelerating development the of ERA. Better managed research policies and resources at the European level will optimise the implementation of individual ERA partnership and other research policy initiatives.
In this respect, a major achievement in 2008 was the Commission’s proposal of five major ERA partnership initiatives with the potential to make a large and lasting impact on European research.
Among these, the concept of joint programming in research recognises that major societal challenges such as climate change, health and energy supply require Member States to unite in pooling their public resources for the benefit of all European citizens.
In a bid to retain and attract the best research talent, the Communication ‘Better careers and more mobility: a European partnership for researchers’ recommended joint actions by Member States to open up recruitment, provide more training and improve employment conditions.
A ‘Strategic European framework for international S&T cooperation’ spurred a new effort to increase and coordinate collaboration with the rest of the world, building on the 17 existing Science and Technology agreements with third countries.
The Commission also adopted a Recommendation defining operational principles for the management and exploitation of intellectual property by universities and other public research organisations. This will permit more effective transnational transfer of knowledge than is possible under the present disparate national regulations.
In addition, a Commission-proposed regulation now provides a legal framework that makes it easier to set up large-scale European research infrastructures, such as observatories for environmental sciences, data banks in genomics or state-of-the-art large super computers among the member States.
Existing FP7 instruments, such as Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and EU participation in joint actions undertaken by several Member States, were further developed in 2008.
JTIs combine private and public funding and address strategic areas where research and innovation are vital for European competitiveness. In 2008, five large-scale JTIs, respectively in the fields of embedded computing systems, nanoelectronics, innovative medicines, aeronautics, and fuel cells and hydrogen – were prepared for autonomy as independent legal entities under Article 171 of the EC Treaty. Three of these JTIs, Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), Clean Sky and Fuel Cells and Hydrogen fall within the remit of DG RTD.
The European Metrology Research Programme (EMRP), proposed by the Commission for joint funding by the EU and 22 participating countires, will support long-term collaboration between national institutes in the field. It will complement existing initiatives in which the EU participates in research and development programmes undertaken by several Member States. Examples include the research-performing SMEs' programme (Eurostars) and the FP6 forerunner for such initiatives, the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).
Two new agencies – the Research Executive Agency and the ERC Executive Agency – were progressively being set up to improve project administration by providing dedicated management facilities for several parts of FP7.
The success of the European Research Council (ERC), launched in February 2007 to encourage fundamental research at the ‘frontier of knowledge’, is evident from the more than 11 000 proposals received for its first calls. Under the ERC Starting Grant and ERC Advanced Grant schemes, more than 500 ‘blue skies’ research projects have commenced in institutions across Europe.
As the projects outlined in the following pages illustrate, the scientific and technological aims are strongly aligned with the societal challenges and policy priorities of the Community: environment and sustainability, health and population ageing; security, energy, social cohesion, education and equality of opportunity.
Europe currently produces about one third of the world’s new scientific knowledge. The EU is particularly strong in chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, food research and the engineering sciences. In nanotechnology, for instance, it is one of the most active regions worldwide. But there is no room for complacency.
The financial crisis has made it necessary to balance ‘smart’ Research and Development (R&D) investments reinforcing Europe's move towards a knowledge-based economy with short-term actions to assist hard-pressed industrial and commercial enterprises. In December 2008, the EU summit endorsed a European Economic Recovery Plan to develop new technologies for the vitally important manufacturing, construction and automotive sectors, which have experienced significant downturns in demand as a result of the financial turmoil.
Long-term needs present before the crisis have not disappeared, and the Lisbon strategy goals are now more valid than ever to lay the foundation for enduring recovery. The latest statistics show that Europe’s R&D investment has progressed modestly from 1.84% to 1.85% of GDP, though it lags well behind the 2.61% level in the US. Increased public and private support for research and innovation remains essential.