Universities call for push to tackle research area challenges

The European Union must make huge efforts to attract research talent from around the world if its ambitious plan to launch a European Research Area in two years is to succeed, a League of European Research Universities conference agreed last week.

But the 2014 start date of the European Research Area (ERA), which aims to ease the management and funding of cross-border research projects across Europe, remained only theoretical even at this late stage, Dr Katrien Maes warned delegates as they were presented with LERU’s response to a European Commission paper on untapped research resources.

She doubted the commission would be ready to meet its own deadline still less organise the necessary funding.

“There’s such a huge programme to be achieved between now and then,” Maes said. Agreement would need to be struck on the EU’s comprehensive Horizon 2020 programme, among other issues.

The potential delay was important, she said, because financial pressures on research-intensive universities were currently onerous.

In introducing the LERU response to a commission paper on untapped research resources, Maes stressed that there remained “an insufficient commitment to resources”. This and EU member state reluctance to coordinate resources “continues to prevent the true integration of joint research programmes”.

There was still foot-dragging by many universities to get involved in the ERA, she said, compounding national governments’ reluctance to enter large-scale collaborative funding programmes at a time of budget tightening.

Furthermore, Maes restated a complaint that has been uppermost in LERU’s policy-making in the decade of its existence: that an unfettered single European market in the free circulation of knowledge needs to be better managed.

This theme was taken up by Professor Jüri Engelbrecht, president of the Federation of National Academies of Sciences and Humanities, who called for “a culture of awareness” to be developed by universities to sharpen the need for contact with similar institutions abroad.

In addition, two new policy elements were introduced at the half-day meeting: gender and ethics.

LERU says it is essential that the research profession attracts and retains a larger number of women, not least because the “EU cannot afford to waste its talents, particularly its hitherto most wasted female talent for research”.

The document added: “Responsibilities also lie with research funders, governments and others to define frameworks and promote or mandate gender equality.”

On ethics, the conference was told of the need to foster a culture in the academic world of identifying research integrity.

“Inappropriate research” should be discussed openly by the profession, note should be taken of any potential conflicts of interest by research workers and, of course, all should be mindful of respecting authorship. Covert research was not to be recommended, the report said.

“Research should not be restricted by political agendas and researchers should not normally be restricted as to what questions to ask or what fields they should research into. Yet this does not mean that such liberty can brook no limits,” it added.

Delegates agreed researchers should reflect on the impact that scientific assumptions, discoveries and research products may have on nature or society.

After prompting by Dr Peter Tindemans, representing Euroscience's governing board, several delegates returned to complaints about practical issues at the ERA’s heart: researcher visas, right of residence, taxation and so on.

Many such questions should be dealt with by the universities, Tindemans said, as they can often seem tiresome or off-putting to many researchers who would otherwise find travel an inviting prospect.