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Towards a European Research Area (ERA)
The European Union (EU) has a long tradition of excellence in the fields of research and innovation, but it is often too thinly spread. The European Commission has therefore taken the initiative of adopting a communication laying down the foundations for a European Research Area. The idea is to establish a border-free zone for research in which scientific resources will be better deployed to create more jobs and improve Europe's competitiveness. This document first defines the concept of a European Research Area (the background, status quo, challenges, constituent parts, etc), then reviews the action to be taken and resources to be deployed to create the Area by 2010.
Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 18 January 2000: Towards a European research area [COM(2000) 6 final - Not published in the Official Journal].
EU action in the area of research has always consisted of boosting cooperation between partners from different countries within the context of its successive framework programmes. Since the beginning of the 1980s, these programmes have helped to create a new cooperative approach in a changing society. A real "European Research Area" has been starting to take shape on the continent.
In this globalised world, research and technological development are advancing rapidly thanks to exchanges of researchers, information and scientific results, all of which are moving between countries more and more freely and swiftly.
At the present time, however, it cannot be claimed that there is a European research policy, with 80% of public research in Europe being carried out at national level, primarily under national or regional research programmes. In other words, the research policies of the Member States and that of the Union are conducted in parallel but do not constitute a coherent whole. As a result, the efforts made are often in vain.
European research is also lacking in other respects. Scientific and technological development is the driving force behind economic and social growth, particularly when it comes to creating jobs. However, a number of indicators reveal that EU dynamism falls far behind that of its major competitors. At the end of the 1990s EU expenditure fell to 1.8% of its GDP, as compared with almost 3% in the United States and Japan.
The EU is, however, one of the leaders in areas such as medical research and chemistry. This potential must be maintained, strengthened and fully harnessed in cooperation with companies, research institutes and universities outside Europe.
Essentially, research must play a more forceful and central role in the European economy and society. With that in mind, on 18 January 2000 the Commission proposed the creation of a European Research Area (ERA). The main aim is to "contribute to the creation of a more favourable environment for research in Europe". The EU hopes to set up the European Research Area by 2010.
The ERA combines three ideas:
- the creation of an "internal market" in research (a genuine area of free movement of knowledge, researchers and technology) designed to strengthen cooperation, stimulate competition and optimise the allocation of resources;
- a restructuring of the European research fabric, essentially by improving the coordination of national research activities and policies (which account for most of the research carried out and funded in Europe);
- the development of a European research policy that looks beyond the funding of research activities, covering all the aspects of other national and European research policies.
It is made up of the following:
- material resources and facilities optimised at European level;
- more coherent use of public instruments and resources;
- more dynamic private investment;
- a common system of scientific and technical reference for policy implementation;
- more abundant and more mobile human resources;
- a dynamic European landscape, open and attractive to researchers and investments;
- an area of shared values.
The main financial instrument for the ERA is the sixth framework programme for research, which runs up to the end of 2006. The seventh framework programme will succeed it in 2007. It is designed to help the EU meet the objectives set in Lisbon, forming the basis for the construction of a knowledge-based economy.
Material resources and facilities optimised at European level
The ERA will require the setting up of "centres of excellence" by networking leading-edge research institutions.
World-class centres of excellence exist in practically all disciplines in Europe. However, their work is not always sufficiently well-known outside Europe.
Teleworking, using electronic networks, makes it possible to create "virtual centres of excellence", which may be multidisciplinary and involve universities and companies.
Electronic networks open up new working possibilities to researchers: virtual laboratories, remote operation of instruments, almost unlimited access to specialised databases, etc.
More coherent use of public instruments and resources
National research programmes are still highly independent of one another. To overcome this isolation, the national research authorities in the Member States have decided to recommend the adoption of the principle of reciprocal opening-up of national programmes. The Commission has played the role of initiator, providing the national bodies with the logistical resources and legal instruments to improve coordination of the activities undertaken in Europe. In this context, a number of European scientific and technological cooperation organisations have been set up in an intergovernmental framework: the ESF (European Science Foundation), the ESA European Space Agency, COST (European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research), EUREKA (Extra-EU research programme), etc.
There is thus a dual objective to improve the coherence of European research:
- to implement national and European research programmes in a more coordinated way, and
- foster closer ties between European scientific and technological cooperation organisations.
More dynamic private investment
The current European system of patents, as operated by the European Patents Office and the national offices, is based on national patents which are valid only in the Member States in which they are issued. This costly system is one of the major obstacles to their widespread use in Europe. The Commission therefore plans to propose the creation of a standard Community patent to cover all the EU.
The creation of the ERA will make it possible to:
- make better use of the instruments for providing indirect support to research, and
- develop effective tools to protect intellectual property by encouraging the creation of businesses and venture-capital investment.
A common system of scientific and technical reference for policy implementation
The European research system must be organised in such a way as to preempt and take account of needs arising at the various stages of implementation of public policies. The challenge will be to eliminate the administrative and official obstacles which hamper scientific research. Research directly undertaken by the Commission should also tie in with the major concerns of citizens and decision-makers, such as environmental protection, food safety and chemical products or nuclear safety.
To achieve this, the research needed for political decisions and to establish a common system of scientific and technical reference must be further developed.
More abundant and more mobile human resources
The three major challenges facing the ERA in terms of human resources are to:
- increase researcher mobility;
- enhance the place and role of women in research;
- give the young a taste for careers in science.
Overall, researchers are more mobile than the rest of the population. However, European researchers lack familiarity with the research cultures in other countries. The way that recruitment is organised in Europe means that each country's own nationals are favoured in the area of academic or scientific careers. The lack of appropriate career structures for researchers from other European countries prevents research bodies from benefiting from this experience.
Women account for 50% of university graduates, but paradoxically their involvement in scientific research is still marginal.
Lastly, all European countries are witnessing a decline in interest in careers in research among the young. People's interest in scientific and technical subjects begins in primary school. The EU should therefore improve the teaching of science at all levels: in primary, secondary and further education.
A dynamic European landscape, open and attractive to researchers and investments
The regions are playing an increasingly positive role in research and innovation, benefiting from substantial resources and launching initiatives to promote the development of ties between universities, companies and research centres. They are therefore key players in the ERA and their role should be enhanced. More particularly, the requirements for a genuine "territorialisation" of research policies (tailoring them to address the specific socio-economic context of each region) will have to be studied and put in place.
The level of investment in research in the candidate countries is not particularly high at present and their research infrastructure needs to be adapted to applying know-how to economic and social ends. It is therefore essential to promote the integration of the scientific communities of western and eastern Europe.
Europe does not offer researchers from third countries particularly advantageous material and administrative conditions. Regulations, scientific cultures and languages vary from one country to another. To attract the best researchers from all over the world to European laboratories, a system of grants for scientists must be set up. In the case of developing countries, this system should be designed so as to encourage researchers to return to their country of origin.
An area of shared values
Increasing pressures on the environment, serious crises in the area of food safety and the marketing of GMOs rightly raise concern among the general public and may destabilise its faith in science. There is a need to promote dialogue between researchers and other sectors of society (citizens, experts, industrial managers and political decision-makers).
Ethical questions linked to the progress of scientific and technological knowledge, particularly in areas such as the life sciences, are approached differently from one country to another. National and European ethics committees ("European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies") should strengthen their ties in order to foster a common approach.
In other words, the construction of a European Research Area is aimed at:
- giving questions of science and society their full European dimension;
- developing a shared vision of the ethical issues surrounding science and technology.