EC sets out vision for future of European Research Area

The European Commission has adopted a vision for a new European Research Area (ERA) to improve Europe’s research and innovation landscape, accelerate the EU’s transition towards climate neutrality and digital leadership, support its recovery from the societal and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, and strengthen its resilience against future crises.

It said the ERA, which was launched in 2000, should be “based on excellence” and be “competitive, open and talent-driven” and on 30 September 2020 set out key strategic objectives and actions which include improving access to facilities and infrastructure for researchers across the EU and strengthening the mobility of researchers and the free flow of knowledge and technology.

The commission said the strategic objectives and actions would prioritise investments and reforms in research and innovation, improve access to excellence for researchers across the EU and enable research results to reach the market and the real economy.

They would also promote skills and career development opportunities for researchers as well as gender equality and better access to publicly funded peer-reviewed science.

Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said: “Today, we are setting a new ambition for a European Research Area to facilitate cooperation and contribute to a more competitive European industry.”

Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, said: “We live in times when scientific activities require faster and effective collaborations. We need to strengthen the European Research Area – an area embracing all of Europe, because knowledge has no territorial boundaries, because scientific knowledge grows with collaborations, because knowledge is trusted if there is open scrutiny of its quality.”

She hoped it would be better placed “to achieve peaks of excellence and support an innovative and risk-taking industry to shape a resilient, green and digital future”.

Vestager said the EU is already leading innovation through its research and scientific excellence. “We want to build on that and step up our efforts towards achieving breakthrough market-driven innovations that will contribute to a green digital Europe and will boost growth, job creation and our competitiveness in the global scene.”

Strategic objectives

The four strategic objectives set out in the vision are to:

Prioritise investments and reforms in research and innovation towards the green and digital transition, to support Europe’s recovery and increase competitiveness.

This support would be provided by programmes such as Horizon Europe, the Cohesion Policy and Next Generation EU. But the vision also spells out that member states should set a target of 3% of GDP to be invested in EU research and innovation and for a target of 5% national public funding to joint research and development programmes and European partnerships by 2030.

The principle of excellence remains the cornerstone for investments under the ERA.

Improve access to facilities and infrastructure for researchers across the EU. Horizon Europe will further ensure improved access to excellence through enhanced collaborations with more experienced counterparts.

The commission also proposes that member states lagging behind the EU average research and innovation investment direct their efforts to increase their investments by 50% in the next five years.

“To this end, mobility opportunities for researchers to access excellence and expand their experience will be created through dedicated training and mobility schemes between industry and academia.

“In order to reflect the progress towards research based on excellence, member states lagging behind the EU average on highly cited publications should reduce the gap to the EU average by at least one-third in the next five years.”

Transfer results to the economy: The commission will encourage and guide the development of common technology plans with industry that will allow crowding in more private investments in key international projects.

Strengthen mobility of researchers and the free flow of knowledge and technology. The EU will aim to improve career development opportunities “to attract and retain the best researchers in Europe as well as incentivise researchers to pursue a career outside academia”.

To this end, it will also deliver, by the end of 2024, in partnership with member states and research organisations, a toolbox of support for researchers’ careers.

The toolbox will consist of a Researchers Competence Framework to identify key skills and mismatches; a mobility scheme to support exchange and mobility of researchers across industry and academia; targeted training and professional development opportunities under Horizon Europe; and a one-stop shop portal for people to more easily find information and manage their learning and careers.

As part of its initiatives to support the recovery and build a green and digital Europe, the commission, in addition to the new European Research Area, adopted on 30 September a new Digital Education Action Plan, to adapt education and training systems to the digital age, as well as a Communication on the European Education Area as a driver for job creation and growth.

The European Research Area was launched in 2000 with the aim of better organising and integrating Europe’s research and innovation systems and enhancing cooperation between the EU, the member states, their regions and their stakeholders.

It also aimed for the free circulation of researchers, scientific knowledge and technology throughout the EU and focused on stimulating cross-border cooperation and on improving and coordinating the research and innovation policies and programmes of the member states.

Defining excellence

Commenting on the vision for the ERA, the European University Association called for the co-creation of a definition of the central concept of research excellence.

“Excellence is not limited to highly cited publications but needs to be based on the many and diverse contributions of the research community, notably including Open Science practices, citizen engagement, and impact on society,” the EUA said.

It also called on policy-makers to boost funding, especially considering the ‘vast aims’ of the new European Research Area.

EUA Secretary General Amanda Crowfoot said: “EUA is disappointed and concerned to see that the level of ambition for the new ERA is not matched by sufficient investment under the current proposal for Horizon Europe.

“This is despite R&I being key contributors to the green and digital transitions, as well as society’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities welcomed the potential of the European Research and Education Area to boost excellence in the European higher education sector at a time when “research, education and innovation are at the heart of Europe’s recovery from the current pandemic and its ability to orient our societies towards a more resilient future”.

‘Holistic’ strengthening of science

It said the ERA is “uniquely placed to strengthen Europe’s public science systems in a holistic way, not just in areas where they can support industrial needs”.

It particularly welcomed the objective of increasing the public investment in R&I from the current 0.8% to 1.25% of EU GDP by 2030.

But it called for a specific attention within this goal to investments in public universities through their institutional and competitive research funding.

It also urged member states to “define strengthening the national frameworks for research excellence as a core ERA objective”, as well as acknowledge the essential role of fundamental research in contributing to Europe’s capacity to respond and adapt to global challenges, such as the coronavirus pandemic or climate change.

“A strategy that invests only in the translation of knowledge while reducing attention to the production of new break-through knowledge will result in a reduced R&I capacity for Europe, and make it less attractive for scientific talent,” the Guild warned.