EU nations urged to pool public research budgets

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The European Commission wants member states to pool together their money and brains to conduct joint research on major societal challenges such as ageing and energy security, saying purely individual efforts on such vast topics waste resources.

Presenting a Communication on joint programming on 15 July, Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik listed fighting climate change, securing energy supply, preventing major pandemics for diseases, preserving marine ecosystems and biodiversity, ensuring food quality and securing food supply as “the most shared challenges of our societies”. 

These are challenges that “can be addressed through research and technological development” and require a response at European if not global level, he added.

The ambition of the Commission’s communication is to allow cross-border research on these strategic areas by setting common research agendas, he explained.

“Obviously national programming of research has a place when it addresses national needs and priorities, but for major societal challenges,” national level action is a waste of time, money and resources, the commissioner argued. 

He explained that joint programming is about public cooperation in strategic research areas where member states voluntarily decide to bring money and people together. It will also be up to the committed partners to identify common objectives and develop and implement the research agenda. 

Joint programming “does not require all member states to be involved. It can be à la carte, but such partnerships will be open to any member state or associated country to join whenever they want,” Poto?nik added.

According to the optimistic commissioner, joint programming “has the potential to become a mechanism at least as important as the Framework Programmes in the European research landscape and change the very way in which Europeans think about research”.

The final report of the public consultation on the future of ERA showed that many member states are not in much of a hurry to jointly coordinate their national research programmes or priorities. In their responses to the consultation member states stressed the importance of "striking a careful balance" in optimising research programmes and priorities as they believe too much coordination and cooperation may "potentially reduce positive competition and diversity".

According to the Commission, some 85% of the public sector research in Europe is programmed, financed, monitored and evaluated at national level. Just 15% of European publicly financed civil R&D is financed in a cross-border collaborative manner (10% by intergovernmental organisations and schemes and 5% by the EU Framework Programme).

The EU executive has repeatedly voiced concern over this situation, saying fragmentation and duplication of research efforts are a major obstacle to the EU's chances of delivering on the Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs. 

In its review of the European Research Area (ERA) in spring 2007, the EU executive called for the optimisation of research programmes. This, it suggested, should be done by making national and regional research more coherent through joint priority setting.

In the framework of the bloc's Strategic Energy Technology (SET) plan, the EU executive has already proposed more coordinated national research on low-carbon technologies. 

  • Soon:  Ministers should nominate high-level representatives to identify specific areas for joint programming.
  • By end 2008: The Council could endorse the concept and objectives of joint programming. 
  • By mid-2009: High-level representatives should identify specific areas for joint programming. 
  • By end 2009: The Commission will submit recommendations for adoption by the Council aimed at launching joint programming initiatives in the areas identified by the high-level representatives.

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