European Research Area - within reach?
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.
European research began with the Euratom Treaty in 1956 and concentrated first on nuclear issues. Minor research activities were conducted under the EEC Treaty as well, and in the 1970s European countries started energy research in other fields apart from nuclear.
Co-ordination of national research policies and the Community's own science and technology policy were introduced by Council resolutions in January 1974.
In the 1980s, European-level research was expanded to cover fields apart from energy, and promoting general industrial competitivenss became central. The first research and technological development framework programme, Esprit, was adopted for 1984-1994, when the importance of information technologies for the competitiveness of all goods and services industries was first realised.
Esprit comprised the first three framework programmes: the first, 1984-1987 included energy, environment and industry; the second, from 1987-1991, focused on promoting the information society, and; the third, 1991-1994, guaranteed continuity from the previous programme focusing on research in information technologies.
After, FP4 (1994-1998) guaranteed the continuity of previous FPs, while introducing new programme on targeted socio-economic research. FP5 (1998-2002) marked a shift from research concentrating largely on technical performance as it was conceived to help respond to major socio-economic challenges facing the EU. Its four 'key actions' focused on topics such as sustainable growth or user-friendly information society.
FP6 (2003-2006) was designed as the financial instrument to contribute to the creation of a European Research Area (ERA) whereas the current FP7 (2007-2013) is designed as a key contribution to the EU's strategy for growth and jobs.
Funding for the EU's RTD programmes comes from the EU general budget and the EU's total expenditure on R&D has grown rapidly since the first Esprit programme was launched in 1984 (with an overall €6 billion allocation). The first bigger increase came with FP4, which was allocated some €13bn, FP6 (€17.5bn) and finally, FP7 with a total of €50.4bn for a period of seven years.
The average yearly spending has thus increased from around €1.5bn to some €7.2bn.
Despite changes in Framework Programmes' research priorities over time (from energy or agriculture in the mid-80s to biotech, transport, nanotech and space), information and communciation technologies (ICT) continue to receive the the biggest share of the total R&D budget.
- The latest statistics (February 2007) on EU R&D spending show that, at the current rate, the Barcelona 3% objective will be achieved somewhere around 2050. The European average stays, for 2005, at 1.85% of GDP compared to the US 2.7% and Japanese 3.2%.
- The Commission is set to publish, in March 2007, a Communication on 'New horizons and further steps for the ERA', launching a debate on where Europe currently stands with the creation of single European research market.
- The Communication will be submitted to a large public and political debate, which will eventually lead, in 2008, to a second Communication formulating concrete proposals for actions.