Report finds little progress on European Research Area

With just three months to go before the launch of the European Research Area, or ERA, much work is still needed before a border-free international market for research projects can be established, a new report has found.

The European Commission said last Monday that the European Union (EU) research market was still fragmented, with many different funding schemes for researchers in the 28 EU member countries and different policies for knowledge-sharing and open access to publicly funded research.

A majority of research grants were still not portable across borders within the EU: “National research programmes still operate according to different rules, for example on reporting, which makes transnational research cooperation difficult,” read a statement released by the European Commission together with the report.

“Gender inequality means female researchers' talent is still being wasted, and this is the area of the ERA where progress has been weakest,” the communiqué noted.

Recruitment practices in the field of research were still not fully open, transparent and based on merit, the report showed, with the European Commission complaining that most of the vacancies were not advertised at European level on the jobs portal Euraxess.

“We could improve on the use of Euraxess,” Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, or LERU, told University World News later.

He argued that many of the LERU member universities, thanks to their reputations, did not need to use the jobs portal to attract researchers. “If the commission would develop a less burdensome tool, we could maybe make better use of this,” Deketelaere noted.

Low spending on research

The ERA report also showed how public spending on research measured as a share of total government spending in all EU countries stood at 1.47% in 2011, the lowest level in almost a decade.

Transnational access to research infrastructure, such as very intense lasers or extremely large telescopes, was burdened by lack of transparency and different tax regimes, said the report.

“There is a significant challenge regarding VAT when it comes to buying research infrastructure,” added Deketelaere.

According to him, solving many of the issues hampering the development of the ERA is up to European national governments, which need to come up with legislation in response.

“We as universities can only do things which do not need new legislation or modification of existing legislation,” he explained. For example, universities can contribute to the ERA when it comes to supporting research careers and innovative training principles, Deketelaere said.

“If we talk about open access and research infrastructures, we are much more dependent on how our national government is looking at those,” the professor continued, noting that in some cases a European scheme would work better than 28 national ones.

“Is it really wise to have 28 different national schemes for open access to publications?” Deketelaere wondered, noting that in the future the European Commission may need to consider introducing binding legislation to make the ERA a reality.

More time needed

One thing is certain: these issues will not be solved in a year.

According to Deketelaere and to European University Association Deputy Secretary General Dr John Smith, who is responsible within the association for research and innovation, the 2014 deadline set by EU member states and the commission was unfeasible from the start.

“But it’s important that the ERA as a policy process is moving forward,” Smith told University World News.

He thinks the policy’s objectives – creating more effective national research systems and an open labour market for researchers, improving transnational research cooperation, achieving gender equality in the field and ensuring access to and transfer of scientific knowledge – are the right ones. “But it will take some time,” he emhasised.

“The EU research commissioner [Máire Geoghegan-Quinn] and ministers from EU member states will have a chance to discuss the ERA at the competitiveness council meeting on Friday [27 September] and we expect to see a continued commitment to ERA,” Michael Jennings, European Commission spokesperson for research, innovation and science, told University World News.