Europe deserves a better European Research Area policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Professor Miguel Seabra

Professor Miguel Seabra [Science Europe]

As the EU Member States and the European Commission are hard at work reviewing the European Research Area (ERA) policy and defining a new ‘ERA Roadmap’, it’s time to take a new approach, writes Miguel Seabra.

Professor Miguel Seabra is President of Science Europe, an association of European research funding and performing organisations. He is also President of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

Giants like Google, Siemens, General Electric, Bayer, Apple or Phillips are part of an ecosystem that largely relies on publicly-funded research, infrastructures and human resources. Without the complex ecosystem that is nourished by states, such companies would dry up and fall like leaves off a dead tree. This should be common knowledge.

Instead, it seems to be the world’s best kept secret. So much so, that a book making a similar case – Mariana Mazzuccato’s The Entrepreneurial State – earned its author international acclaim and various mentions as best book of the year as recently as 2013. The proposition is not even new. Older studies, like Funding a Revolution in the 1990s, linked decades-long public funding for computing research, to innovations such as the internet and relational databases. These innovations are the foundations of today’s ICT businesses. The technologies that matured to fruition thanks to an intense interplay between public and private sector are all around us. Smartphones and optical fibres owe their existence to basic research that is more than a century old. The technological revolutions to come, like biotech or the space industry, are no exception.

The lesson we can draw is that above and beyond short-term programming and objectives, states need to create and nourish a vital tissue made of universities, researchers, trainers, infrastructures, so that their societies are able to engage in knowledge-intensive activities. As a result, states need to act with a systemic perspective, thinking long-term, and risking more, and for longer, than private initiative is willing to.

In this sense, the European Union’s ERA policy is a good idea. ERA policy is predominantly about the state’s role, and it complements the many European Union policies related to innovation (regional policy, the Digital Agenda, the single market, competition policy, and the Innovation Union Flagship Initiative). Current ERA policy is based on the 2012 ERA Communication, which called for a partnership between the European Institutions, the EU Member State governments, and Research Funding and Performing Organisations, to take action to improve and further integrate national research policies. The concept is sound, because we need to address all bottlenecks to the good operation of public interventions. Without an ERA policy, the specific role of publicly-funded research would not necessarily be considered at EU level. Examples of relevant bottlenecks are insufficient investments on, and shared access to, research infrastructures, limited cross-sector mobility of researchers, and the lack of gender equality in the research world.

Such bottlenecks can contribute to Europe’s competitiveness problems, by making it less able to attract global talent and to continuously develop its research capacities. Statistics show that research spending is constantly increasing worldwide, and effectively there is a global ‘knowledge race’. Dropping out of this race now would mean not being able to maintain our current living standards in the future. Because of this, the organisation I represent, Science Europe, analysed the most urgent bottlenecks, and released a roadmap for action in December 2013. Science Europe’s work is now devoted to the identification of appropriate solutions.

However, ERA policy today contains some elements that could limit its effectiveness. The 2012 Communication was complemented by the so-called ‘ERA Monitoring Mechanism’: essentially a survey and an annual report – the ‘ERA Progress Report’ – to monitor the implementation of actions assigned to EU Member States and stakeholders. The Report contains data from the survey, and a few other data sources, as well as new objectives or initiatives that are presented as linked to the analysis. Unfortunately, the monitoring and implementation do not focus on the most important issues. In some cases, the objectives themselves could be better defined.

Progress analysis is based on the idea of ‘ERA compliance’, which essentially means survey-detected ‘implementation’ initiatives by ministries and research funding and performing organisations. For example, a key indicator of progress on gender is based on survey questions asking funders if, when allocating funding, they “supported gender equality between men and women”, and if they “included the gender dimension in research content”. Science Europe experts in gender issues found such concepts to have limited meaning in practical terms, and also highlighted the potential for interpretation in different ways by different people. The story is similar across the various policy areas.

A better starting point for the analysis should be a recognition that there are no ‘silver bullets’ to implement ERA, and that achieving ERA objectives is not purely a matter of will to ‘implement’. Regrettably, the reality is far from being simple. Open Access to research publications requires working out complex issues, such as who will cover the costs of peer review and how, or how to ensure the quality of publications when authors pay to publish. Mobility and openness are not simply about creating European flows of funds, people and knowledge; they are also about ensuring that those flows are not unidirectional.

‘Progress with ERA’ is about figuring out solutions for problems that defy experts, scholars and policy makers alike. The ERA Progress Reports need to provide useful insights into the real issues, and European policy makers must not be  led to believe that ‘completing ERA’ is about ticking the boxes of the ERA Monitoring Mechanism.

Rather than giving policy makers the instruments to understand the challenges they are confronted with, the policy risks creating an impression of progress, and diverting resources from developing better policies, adapted to national and local strategic needs. Moreover, some proposed measures may contribute to enlarging the gap between the best performers and those that need to catch up.

ERA policy is now undergoing a review, which will culminate in the adoption of an ‘ERA Roadmap’ in mid-2015. A new Commission and the expiration of the current Communication approach provide the opportunity for a fresh start. This is the right moment at which to re-think ERA policy so that its implementation can make a difference on the ground. Including stakeholders in the exercise of defining the overall goals and processes is essential. Indeed, some stakeholders have expert knowledge on ERA policy issues accumulated over many decades and, in some cases, centuries.

In conclusion, there is an opportunity to place ERA in the hands of a true partnership, to refocus the ERA Communication on better targeted priorities, rather than spreading it thinly over a large number of ‘priorities’, and to make ERA about discussing real bottlenecks. Science Europe is ready to play its part, and to share its proposals with all policy makers interested in a partnership for science.

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