Low R&D budgets ‘threaten EU competitiveness’

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An EU initiative to create a common research area has helped to make the Union more attractive for foreign scientists, but spending on science and research is still far too low for the bloc to catch up with the US or Japan, according to a new study.

Seventeen member states, mainly those which lag behind in R&D spending, increased their research budgets between 2000 and 2006, the study showed. But the other ten reduced theirs, leaving the Union’s overall spending stuck at 1.84% of GDP since 2005, far below the US (2.6% of GDP), Japan and South Korea, EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik remarked.

“At a time of crisis, it is not the moment to take a break from investing in research and innovation. They are vital if Europe want to address the challenges of climate change and globalisation,” Poto?nik said.

 ‘Average’ performance 

As part of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs (see EURACTIV LinksDossier), EU leaders set themselves the goal of boosting R&D spending to 3% of GDP, which they agreed was necessary to keep Europe competitive and make the notion of a knowledge-based society a reality. 

“If I had to give a mark to the EU, I would say ‘average’. ‘Strong potential and must perform better’,” Potocnik said, presenting a report on the bloc’s progress in the field of R&D and innovation. 

According to the commissioner, the gloomy picture is a result of lower private sector investment in the EU at a time that it increased substantially in the US, Japan and China. The latter, especially, is emerging as a new science and technology actor, with an R&D growth rate of 50% between 2000 and 2006, Poto?nik stated. 

Poto?nik called for higher business investment and more involvement of the high-tech industry in the European economy. At present, the high-tech sector accounts for 12% of EU GDP, compared to 18% in the US. Governments must create favourable conditions for fast-growing and innovation-friendly markets and enable cheaper access to an EU-wide patent system, he said (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on the ‘Community Patent’). 

A recent survey showed citizens are in favour of increasing R&D budgets amid fears that the ongoing economic crisis may lead to cuts in national budgets (EURACTIV 13/01/09). 

European Reseach Area is ‘delivering’ 

Europeans equally voiced support for a coordinated European Reseach Area, which Poto?nik said had started to deliver “encouraging results” (ERA; see EURACTIV LinksDossier). “The EU has become more open to the world, and is increasingly attractive to foreign investment, students and researchers,” he said. 

Figures show that the number of researchers has been growing twice as fast in the EU than in the US and Japan since 2000, even if the share of researchers in the bloc’s labour force is still lower compared to its main competitors. 

The European Commission first proposed the creation of an European Research Area (ERA, see our Links Dossier) in 2000. Since then, it has put forward several texts to address the main obstacles facing researchers in Europe. Two key challenges are attracting capable scientists from outside the Union, and facilitating their free movement within the EU.

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