The European Research Area – Beyond market politics

The way the European Union regards science and research is changing. There is an increased emphasis on producing marketable deliverables for financial gain. At the same time, the advent of Horizon 2020 raises important yet often-overlooked questions.

Where is it exactly that European research policy is heading? And is this in line with where it ought to be heading, if it really is to create a ‘new Renaissance’ with the potential to transform the way Europe ‘does’ science for the better and in a way that is sustainable for the long term?

To answer this, attention must first be paid to the extent that the current projected vision for the European Research Area, or ERA, is in danger of moving away from the motivations and expectations of researchers at the grassroots of the European innovation chain.

From Galileo through to Gell-Mann, or from Newton to Einstein, scientists throughout European history have traditionally been driven in their work by curiosity about the world around them and the desire to find answers to life’s great mysteries.

It is this blind and often serendipitous pursuit of knowledge that has been behind many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the modern world.

As such, if researchers are to retain any sense of awe and wonder, or the inspiration and drive that have historically been at the heart of their day-to-day discoveries, it is essential that an emphasis on personal humility is not eclipsed in today’s ERA by policies endorsing only ‘applied’ or ‘targeted’ science.

The European Commission’s senior advisory board on the ERA has already recognised that for the European Union, or EU, to make the transition to a more streamlined ERA requires “fundamental change in the way we think, work and research – indeed a change as great as any in our history”.

In its first public report, it called this change a ‘new Renaissance’, deliberately alluding to earlier revolutions in thought, society and science to underscore the importance of this juncture in European research policy for readdressing the social reality of the EU as we know it.

Yet achieving this projected ‘new Renaissance’ is no mean feat, since effecting policy synergy in the ERA not only requires striking a balance between the respective demands of the market, research communities and society at large, but also creating a strategic, common vision shared by the EU-28, and the various traditions and research cultures thereby represented.

Europe 2020

To realise the ‘new Renaissance’, the EU is set to launch the Horizon 2020 framework programme 2014-20, which is scheduled to supersede the seventh framework programme at the end of this year.

Horizon 2020 will specifically effectuate the ‘Innovation Union’, which has been placed at the very heart of the ‘Europe 2020’ growth strategy, in the hope that it will turn innovative ideas neatly into products and services, and thereby create more jobs and boost growth to ease Europe out of crisis.

Equipped with a larger budget, and a proportion expressly dedicated to strengthening industrial leadership in science, Horizon 2020 encourages a decidedly market-driven approach to research and, as such, suggests a shift away from ‘pure’ knowledge generation towards the innovation of viable products.

Now, more than ever, serious thought must be given to whether the act of alleviating the grand challenges identified as facing Europe should be so directly linked to such a strong push “to bring ideas to the market”.

With the boundaries increasingly blurring between academia, business and industry, there is a strong need to ensure that the ‘essence’ of science and research is not lost to subsidiary pressures to publish and generate profit.

Admittedly, scientific diplomacy has long formed the cornerstone for social progress in the EU – ever since the EURATOM Treaty (1957) used energy research to promote peace and prosperity on the continent in the aftermath of war.

Faced with a new financial downturn, however, the onus is on EU officials to ensure that the ERA will continue to support collaborative, cross-border research with strong societal contributions at its core, and not cave in to the urge to use research for economic ends alone.

The mounting pressure to overcome the financial crisis and to respond to an ever-growing number of grand societal challenges means that the need to complete the ERA is greater than ever before.

However, systems need to be put in place to safeguard and increase trust between policy-makers, scientists and citizens. Careful consideration must be given to ensure that the ERA is formalised in such a way that it simultaneously addresses the needs of all stakeholders, and not just those at the top of the political and commercial game.

After all, it is ‘research’ that is at the heart of the ERA and must remain so if Europe is to stand any chance of effecting a ‘new Renaissance’ with the capacity to transform the role and purpose of science in society for a sustainable future.

* Diana Beech is a research associate in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, where she currently manages a project exploring the role and relevance of values to contemporary European science and research policy. Further to this, Beech is the communications coordinator of the European Research Area Collaborative Research Network, generously supported by the Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies, and also a founding member of the European Commission-initiated ‘Voice of the Researchers’ network intended to provide researchers with a channel through which to influence the future of the ERA.