EUROPE: Sweden aims for research reforms

The Swedish Presidency of the European Union took effect last Wednesday and major reforms are likely in the way research is organised in the European Union, notably in the foundation for a Framework Programme 8 that could differ from its forerunners.

Background material for the Lund Conference this week regarding the EU's research and innovation policy includes a 50-page memo deriving from four high-level workshops arranged by the Swedes during February and March.

The discussion draft, New World- New Solutions: Research and innovation as basis for developing Europe in a global context, focuses on how the EU should respond to economic, social, cultural and other challenges or "even shocks" in the future.

Through research those challenges could be worked into opportunities to increase the quality of life in Europe. What is needed now, the report says, is "breaking through the current pattern of understanding, priority setting and structure and to reform the European society, including the university sector and also to support the infrastructure that is needed to respond to these challenges".

The discussion draft toys with all dimensions of research challenges and tries to identify bottlenecks in research, politics and industry to find appropriate responses: "Incremental approaches will not be good enough. We only have one or two decades but we do not know how to speed up the change process."

Some 80 researchers have participated in the preparatory workshops arranged in Brussels (Nature shocks), Berlin (Economic shocks), Tallin (Social and cultural shocks) and in Alcala de Henares near Madrid (Decline as an opportunity). A report from the workshops will be presented to 400 invited participants at the Lund conference.

The major approach is that incremental changes in the 8th Framework Programme starting in 2013 will not be sufficient to implement the far-reaching policies needed to meet the future challenges.

The EU Swedish presidency has aligned itself with the previous French and Czech presidencies and the coming Spanish one from January 2010, targeting a major policy shift in EU research policies. The main message is that a big increase in the total volume of the FP8 has to be in place to respond to the challenges of the organisational structure.

A significant expansion of up to EUR150 billion in 2014-2020 was advocated by the evaluation committee of the FP6. This could be established by closer cooperation with the national research budgets of the EU member countries and an earmarked portion of the European Structural Funds for FP8.

The strong dedication of the Swedish research officials in this process bear the mark of good political handicraft, a strong will for changes and political willpower to form political alliances and legitimacy from the research policy community in Europe.

Because of the huge Swedish investment in research, number one in the world measured as per capita percentage of BNP, the Swedish Minister can speak with great authority among his European colleagues. The timing might also be ripe for extensive changes in the way the European Framework Research Programmes are organised, after years of massive reporting of rooms for improvement.

The present economic situation might also soften politicians for "A Manhattan project for Science". The Swedish Science Radio (Veteskapsradioen) last Wednesday reported that the new Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research, Tobias Krantz, would be responsible for the cooperation of the European research policy in the next six months during the Swedish Presidency.

"We are going to discuss [in Lund] the power balance between the European level and the member states," Krantz said. "It is clear that there are advantages in building up a European research infrastructure and facilitate mobility of scientists between the different countries.But it is also important that we secure that the member countries even in the future process are those that will have the main responsibility for the research policy."