European research today concentrates on developing new technologies, to find solutions to the major socio-economic challenges facing Europe.

Economic growth increasingly depends on research and many current and future challenges, such as climate change or increasing energy consumption, can no longer be solved at national level alone. In 2000 in Lisbon, the heads of state and government called for increased European research efforts and the creation of a European Research Area.  

The European Research Area (ERA) is a vision for the future of research in Europe, based on an internal market for science and technology, which seeks to foster scientific excellence, competitiveness and innovation through the promotion of better co-operation and co-ordination between all relevant European actors at all levels. The creation of ERA aims to ensure the free movement of researchers, ideas and technology in Europe, to overcome the fragmentation of European research, and at co-ordinating national and European programmes and policies to avoid the duplication of resources and efforts.

Linked to the ERA inititiave is the goal, agreed by EU leaders in Barcelona in 2002, of spending at least 3% of GDP on R&D by 2010, two-thirds of this coming from the private sector. This objective was agreed because of the proven positive relationship between R&D spending and competitivenss and because the of the EU trailing the United States in both areas.

However, Eurostat figures show that the EU-25 average gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP has stagnated for a decade now, as only a minor increase of 0.3% can be observed (1.82% in 1995, 1.85% in 2005). Only Sweden and Finland are above the Barcelona target, with 3.86% and 3.48% respectively. 

In volumes, some €200 billion was spent on R&D in the EU-25 in 2005. Germany (by far the biggest spender), France and the UK together count for around two-thirds of this amount - some €55bn, €35bn and €30bn respectively.

As to the current role of EU-sponsored research and technology development activities, normal assumptions would suggest that, based on the legal principle of subsidiarity, the EU's R&D programmes were focused on activities that are too large and/or too complex for any single country to undertake alone, such as large-scale research infrastructures on energy or astronomy. 

However, the role of framework programmes (FPs) has much to do with promoting co-operation with and between undertakings, research centres and universities inside the EU and with third countries or international organisations. Collaborative research projects also encourage the training and exchange of researchers and facilitate joint research ventures among companies, universities and research institutions across Europe.

Different research 'instruments' have proliferated since 2000: from small project consortiums, the focus has shifted to large-scale networks of excellence, integrated projects, technology platforms and, more recently, joint technology initiatives. Instead of merely promoting European co-operation with short-term projects with no far-reaching results, the aim is now to fund large-scale actions and collaborations, which will continue to function even after initial EU funding.