European Research Area: From Lisbon to Ljubljana
By Patrick Veillard | Wednesday 23 September 2009
Just months away from assessment of the Lisbon strategy, one of its pillars still seems fragile today: progress on the European Research Area (ERA) has been mixed and may even suffer from the economic crisis.
Maybe it was the exhilaration of the new millennium or maybe just relief over having escaped countless doomsday prophecies, but Europe was resolutely optimistic in the year 2000. Its optimism was best illustrated by the Lisbon strategy, whose aim was nothing less than to “make the European Union the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010”. To support this strategy, the European Council endorsed the ERA project, aimed at better coordinating national research and development (R&D) policies and above all remedying the patchwork of efforts in the EU. Shortly thereafter, the Barcelona European Council, of 21 March 2002, adopted a specific objective for research and development (R&D): to spend 3% of the Union’s GDP on R&D by 2010, with two thirds of this effort being made by industry. More recently, in April 2008, at the instigation of the Slovenian EU Presidency, the 27 launched the ‘Ljubljana process’ to revive the ERA, a still precarious pillar of the Lisbon strategy, by facilitating the free movement of researchers, technologies and knowledge.
In these times of crisis, this ‘agenda’ might seem incongruous. The Commission nevertheless took a simple observation as its starting point, namely European industry’s inevitable decline in productivity compared with its competitors (primarily Asian), which have low labour costs. Europe had to concentrate on the ‘knowledge-based economy’, especially science and technology, synonymous with growth and employment. This strategy could seem coherent given the old continent’s tradition of excellence in this area, particularly with its world-class education system and research infrastructures.
Looking more closely, the Commission’s snapshot of the sector is nevertheless far from brilliant. Europe suffered at the time, compared with its main competitors (notably American and Japanese), from chronic deficits in terms of investments in research: 1.9% in 2000 compared with 2.4% and 3%, respectively, in the United States and Japan.
The cause of this low level of funding, according to the Commission, is weak private sector investment, which peaks at around 50%, well below the Barcelona target of 75%. What is perhaps more serious is that this low support is widespread in the 27 member states. Financing structures for European research projects have been set up, however, with the EU framework programmes for research and development (FPRD) involving public and private partners from different member states since 1984, and the EUREKA initiative in 1985, an intergovernmental applied research network.
In spite of these efforts, 85% of public research is still carried out at national level, resulting in a fair amount of redundancy and piecemeal efforts. Europe is also plagued by a chronic incapacity to convert the fruits of its research into money-making technological innovations on global markets.
The European Council decided to tackle these challenges, and in March 2000 in Lisbon it endorsed the Commission’s proposal to create the ERA, with the aim of increasing national research efforts and making them more effective and more coherent.
POOR TRACK RECORD
Following the publication of an action plan, in 2002, a task force set up by the Commission carried out an initial assessment exercise, in 2005. The track record turned out to be poor. ERA-NET, the platform for the networking of national research programmes, and the European technology platforms (ETPs - public-private partnerships that loosely associate universities, research centres and private companies) are the only practical achievements. There have been proposals for the coordination of national policies, particularly on providing a framework for state aid and tax incentives, but in the absence of real political will in the member states, some see such proposals as pointless.
Given this state of affairs, the Commission decided the same year to focus its efforts on coordinating national action plans on growth and jobs, leaving aside the binding target figures for 2010.
The first three-year cycle that followed saw the first fruit of the EU’s efforts, and notably the creation of the European Research Council (ERC), in 2006. With its budget of €7.5 billion for 2006-2013, the ERC supports exploratory research activities, on the initiative of researchers, in the framework of the 7th R&D Framework Programme (FP7). The first communication on the European Institute of Technology (EIT) was also published in 2006. Copied on the famous American MIT, the institute aims to group the three elements of the triangle of knowledge, namely research, education and innovation, in order to boost the commercial applications of research.
The annual budget of FP7, a flagship structure of European research, was raised to €7.2 billion, compared with €4.4 billion for FP6. Included therein are the joint technology initiatives (JTIs), partnerships similar to the ETPs but more formal, larger and focused more on fundamental research, thus involving greater financial risk. Lastly, the first EFSRI road map for European research infrastructures was published in October 2006. This programme has met with a fair degree of success since the critical mass of financing needed for these projects (35 have been identified, ranging from a seabed observatory to the very large European telescope) can only be secured in a wide European context. This ‘à la carte’ cooperation, that comes into play only when researchers need a European framework with sufficient financial resources, is possibly the best illustration of the barriers still standing in the way of the ERA. Many researchers and decision makers continue to reason in purely national terms, arguing that sound competition between European programmes is necessary.
Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik does not share that approach. In 2007, he put out a green paper presenting a set of recommendations aimed at taking forward the ERA. The proposals, taken up by the Slovenian EU Presidency in April 2008 under the name of ‘Ljubljana process’, are aimed at encouraging researchers’ mobility and careers, improving research structures (eg with the aid of more effective public-private partnerships), developing better R&D performance indicators, facilitating technology transfers (in particular by lowering the cost of patents) and enhancing the coordination of research programmes at EU level. Since all these aims require better governance, the Council and Commission agreed to improve cooperation through closer involvement of all players: regions, universities, research institutes, civil society and companies.
CLOUDS ON HORIZON
Will progress on the ERA be nipped in the bud during this period of economic slowdown? There is a good chance that short-term rescue plans will take priority given the risky nature and return on investments in long-term research programmes. Stimulus programmes have nonetheless been announced, in particular three public-private partnerships in the sectors of ‘green’ cars, construction and manufacturing technologies. Research in these particularly hard-hit sectors will be receiving directly from the Commission (FP7) €1.6 billion over four years, provided industry puts up matching funds.
Another cloud on the horizon is that the Commission is considering the dismantling of the main source of financing for European research, the FP7 ‘Cooperation’ programme, which is considered too unwieldy to be managed by DG Research alone. Its different components are scattered among several executive agencies, including the ERC or the Research Executive Agency (ERA - see box).
For many actors, including Chris Hull, general secretary of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), this new organisation “will not change the administrative nature of programmes because the political context around the Commission remains the same, with a significant need for rules and regulations”. For Jan van den Biesen, director of public research programmes for Philips, “this outsourcing does not make sense if these agencies have to abide by the same bureaucratic rules as the Commission. This is simply adding another layer, which makes for cumbersome structures”.
By way of compensation, the Commission proposes to develop JTIs, à la carte partnerships between member states, with the aim of further coordinating the public research effort at European level. Susan Kentner, who heads the European office of the Helmholtz association of German research centres, sees this variable-geometry structure as “a step backwards” since “the system does not oblige the different players to cooperate over the long term”. She adds that in addition to the outsourcing of programmes under way, there is also a general trend to renationalise components of European research.
Over and above the economic crisis, the real danger for the ERA may paradoxically reside in this abundance of initiatives. The multiplicity of existing programmes could end up encouraging fragmentation rather than integration of the European research scene. The vision developed by the Commission in its 2007 green paper does not provide for the development of a real research area before 2020. In the meantime, to quote Wim Kok, rapporteur for the task force on the 2005 Lisbon strategy, this area could once again simply become “synonymous with failed objectives and broken promises”.
The Research Executive Agency (REA), based in Brussels, was created in December 2007. Managing a budget of more than 6.5 billion euro, the agency started its activities in 2008 and became fully autonomous on 15 June 2009. It reports to three Directorates-General: Research and Enterprise, Information Society and Media, and Energy and Transport. The evaluation of proposals and project management are at the heart of research support. The REA carries out these tasks primarily in the context of the current research framework programme – FP7. The agency handles the following tasks:
- Marie-Curie fellowships and related awards
- grant agreements for small and medium-sized enterprises
- multi-partner space research projects
- multi-partner security research projects
- proposal reception and evaluation, based in the Covent Garden building in central Brussels
- ‘one-stop shop’ helpdesk for enquiries about FP7
- single registration facility for project partners to reduce the amount of paperwork involved in project management