ERA – European Research Area


The creation of a European Research Area (ERA) is about creating a genuine European ‘internal market’ for research to increase pan-European co-operation and co-ordination of national research activities.

The EU has a long tradition of excellence in research and innovation, but this excellence is often scattered across the EU, with 80 per cent of public sector research in Europe being conducted at national level, mainly under national or regional research programmes. This all too often means that the potential of EU research is not fully exploited. 

To tackle this problem, the Commission proposed, in January 2000, the creation of a European Research Area (ERA). The main aim of the communication 'Towards a European Research Area' is to contribute to a better integration and organisation of Europe's scientific and technological area and to the creation of better overall framework conditions for research in Europe. The Communication was endorsed in the context of the 'Lisbon strategy' to boost Europe's competitiveness. 

On 3 October 2001, the Commission presented a follow-up strategy paper on the regional dimension of the ERA, which aimed at inciting local and regional authorities to benefit from the new possibilities offered by the ERA. The regions are recognised as major drivers behind the development of the European knowledge-economy and regional development is considered key for the EU's future growth and competitiveness.

The EU's 6th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6) was adopted as major element to achieve the ERA and its main financial instrument and the FP7 (2007-2013), is designed to help EU to achieve the Lisbon goals. The first official proposal for the FP7 was accompanied by a communication called "Building the ERA of knowledge for growth 2007-2013".

There is an overall agreement on the need to interlink a European Higher Education Area (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on the 'Bologna Process') and a European Research Area as the integration of the PhD into the Bologna process opens up further opportunities for networking research.

The Commission's initiative (2000) for a European Research Area (ERA) combines three concepts: 

  • the creation of an 'internal market' in research - an area of free movement of knowledge, researchers and technology - with the aim of increasing cooperation, stimulating competition and achieving a better allocation of resources;
  • a restructuring of the European research fabric - in particular by improved coordination of national research activities and policies, which account for most of the research carried out and financed in Europe;
  • the development of a European research policy that not only addresses the funding of research activities, but also takes account of all relevant aspects of other EU and national policies.  

Seven years after, on 4 April 2007, "some progress has been made," states the Commission's Green Paper on new perspectives for the ERA. "However, there is still much further to go to build ERA, particularly to overcome the fragmentation of research activities, programmes and policies across Europe," it continues. 

In particular, the Commission acknowledges that the ERA has yet to achieve its full potential as to mobility of researchers, smooth business to academia co-operation, co-ordination of national and regional funding and better exploitation of research results. 

The Green Paper raises a number of questions on how to deepen and widen the ERA so that it fully contributes to the renewed Lisbon Strategy aiming for more growth and jobs. It launched a wide institutional and public debate on the issue to help the Commission to prepare proposals for concrete initiatives in early 2008. 

The main issues for consultation set out in the Green Paper were:

  • Removing the institutional and national barriers hampering free movement of researchers;
  • improving their working conditions and widening their career prospects; 
  • developing world-class research infrastructures together to share the extremely high building and operating costs;  
  • strengthening universities and public research organisations by increased autonomy and funding;
  • increasing access to knowledge by sharing research results and improving knowledge transfer between public research and industry;
  • optimising research programmes by making national and regional research more coherent and joint priority setting, and;
  • opening ERA to the world by increasing international research co-operation. 

The Green Paper is accompanied by a background document providing a detailed assessment of progress made on the ERA since 2000, as well as an analysis of the current situation and challenges. Final results of the consultation were published in April 2008.

"The problem is that things [various EU initiatives on ERA] are voluntary for the member states, thus slow. The Commission would like them to go faster," said Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik. "The Green Paper (2007) intends to create a request for new member state funding for research, as most of the money is still in their hands."

"So far, the ERA has been a concept, we have not had it for real. The main barrier for a 'real ERA' is philosophical: we still think national," said Bertil Andersson, the former chief executive of the European Science Foundation in an interview with 

According to him, politicians still think about research from national perspective. "Swedish taxpayers' money should fund a Swedish person working for a Swedish project at a Swedish university connected to a Swedish invention and leading to Swedish employment," he explained adding that "one should, however, remember that creation of knowledge is not nationally based."

Indeed, results of the recent consultation on the future of ERA show that despite repeated political declarations, EU member states are in fact unwilling to accept too much coordination of their national R&D programmes. Apart from backing a greater role for the EU in the development of large-scale research infrastructures that in any case are too costly for one member state to develop alone, the EU countries do not seem that enthusiastic about the idea of a "true" ERA. According to many, the ERA should only consist of voluntary coordination of activities on the basis of the open method of coordination (OMC). 

Instead, member states stress the importance of "striking a careful balance" in optimising research programmes and priorities and believe too much coordination and cooperation may "potentially reduce positive competition and diversity". Only Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway declare themselves open - "in principle" - to reciprocal and gradual opening of funding programmes "under conditions of balanced reciprocity". 

As for the creation of a single labour market for researchers, member states believe that compulsory EU legislation is not desirable and that voluntary guidelines are enough. Some support the single labour market, providing it does not lead to the deterioration of research in less developed regions, while others think compulsory EU legislation on the issue could have asymmetric impacts due to different national employment legislation and practices. 

Heads of European Research Councils (EUROHORCs) and the European Science Foundation (ESF) say that if the Commission is serious about establishing a comprehensive ERA, "it needs to engage and focus more on the national research funding and performing organisations, the private sector, and the non-European research systems for the development of the ERA". 

"The Commission's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the European Research System (ERS) concentrates too much on the perspective of the Commission's role and on that of governments and intergovernmental structures. It ignores the role of other stakeholders, such as the national research funding and research performing organisations, as well as other European bodies, the private sector, and, finally, non- European research systems." 

"The Commission needs to put more money into basic research through programmes such as the ERC, to reduce its bureaucracy for these programmes, and to put some pressure on its member states to remove the still abundant barriers to the mobility of researchers," state EUROHORCs and ESF. 

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) is sceptical about the EU's penchant for networks. The league argues that networking between groups with similar interest is already omnipresent but that to be successful, collaboration must be dynamic and flexible and research networks need to be able to modify their activities in response to changing needs. "It would be a mistake to go towards a situation where European networks are subject to stronger central management or where the component groups become too disconnected from their parent institutions," said David Livesey, secretary-general of LERU. 

The European Platform of Women Scientists reiterates that "consideration of gender is essential. Gender diversity in research and research leadership renders research more creative, and will therefore ultimately result in a higher likeliness of innovation." 

According to the European Science Foundation (ESF) the ERA must be viewed as a long-term strategy and it must build on existing structures and organisations at national and EU levels. 

European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) agrees with the Commission that a better co-ordination between national and European research policies is essential for the EU to keep up with its main competitors, the US and Japan. However, UEAPME has voiced concern over the absence of a mention of the role of SMEs in this respect. In particular, the association fears that the Commission's concept of an ERA exclusively focuses on basic research, not taking into account market needs and innovation practices. It therefore calls for a strengthening of the research environment in the private sector, and in particular in SMEs.

ELSO, the European Life Sciences Organisation, points to the fact that no amount of structuring and co-ordination can make up for the lack of highly trained and well-funded researchers. The focus should therefore be on the training and mobility of young researchers and on their resources.

ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, argues in favour of a bigger role for industry in identifying future priorities. It cautions against spreading EU resources too thinly and covering an excessively wide choice of research areas. It also underlined the importance of concentrating on long-term pre-competitive projects.

To see written contributions submitted in response to the Green Paper on ERA, click here.

  • April 2007: The Commission adopts a Green Paper on new perspectives for ERA. The paper is accompanied by a background document providing a detailed assessment of progress made on the ERA since 2000, as well as an analysis of the current situation and challenges. A consultation on future ERA was open until 31 August. 
  • Aug 2007: Mobility of Researchers and Career Development Implementation report 2006 published.
  • 8-10 Oct. 2007: The Future of Science and Technology in Europe - conference
  • 10 April 2008: The first of the announced five new ERA initiatives, a Recommendation on the management of intellectual property by public research organisations was adopted.
  • 24 April 2008Final results of ERA consultation published.
  • 23 May 2008: The second of the announced five new ERA initiatives, a Communication on promoting the mobility and careers of European researchers was adopted.
  • 16 July 2008: The Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive a legal framework for pan-European research infrastructures.
  • 16 July 2008: The Commission adopted a Communication on joint programming of publicly funded research.
  • Sept. 2008: The Commission will adopt a Communication on coordination of international science and technology cooperation.

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