Assuring free movement of data and researchers
By Marie-Martine Buckens | Wednesday 04 July 2012
The European Commission will be signing, on 17 July, memoranda of understanding (MoU) with several key partners in the field of R&D in which these partners commit to open up national research policies. These enhanced partnerships come in the context of the measures the Commission will be presenting the same day to strengthen the European Research Area. The question of free access to scientific data – a particularly sensitive issue for private sector partners – is expected to be at the heart of these memoranda. The matter of free access will also be the subject of a second communication, to be presented on 17 July as well, in which the Commission will present recommendations on the conservation and re-use of scientific information and databases, and on cooperation between stakeholders.
Launched in 2000, the European Research Area (ERA) is at the heart of the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy, the motto of which is “openness and connectivity”. It is a legal obligation written into the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty provides for the creation of a single market for research by the end of 2014, thus establishing a “fifth freedom,” namely the free movement of researchers and knowledge. Twelve years after its launch, the result is modest. Transfer of knowledge has remained weak, reports the Commission in its draft communication, and innovation varies widely from one state to the next. The EU currently allocates 1.9% of its GDP to research and development (2.5% in the United States), still a long way from its 3% target for 2020. Despite satisfactory scores, particularly in the number of scientific publications (the EU remains the world leader) and patents (more than 40% of global applications), the EU, notes the Commission, continues to lose ground on innovation compared with its historic competitors, Japan and the United States, but also compared with emerging countries like China, India and Brazil.
The ERA is not synonymous with abolition of the 27 national research systems financed by national taxes, points out the Commission. But to boost competitiveness, remaining obstacles to the openness and connectivity of these systems need to be abolished, including fragmented efforts and the compartmentalisation of national research systems. The draft communication acknowledges that an effort along these lines has been made since 2000. It mentions in particular:
- the agreement signed by member states on guidelines for joint programming initiatives in research. The initiative is praiseworthy but progress has been slow when it comes to implementation, notes the document
- the European Partnership for Researchers, whose charter and code of conduct drawn up by the Commission have helped improve management of research careers in a number of institutions
- the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which should be considerably improved, notes the draft
- the gradual organisation of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC).
In its draft communication, the Commission lists the key priorities for delivering improvements to research by 2014.
In setting these priorities, it built on the large-scale public consultation that closed in November 2011, for which it received more than 690 submissions. The executive lists five priorities:
1. improve the effectiveness of research within member states
2. increase transnational cooperation and competition
3. complete the single market for researchers
4. ensure gender equality
5. optimise circulation and transfer of scientific knowledge.
The last priority will be addressed in a separate Commission communication. The executive is expected to present a number of recommendations to the member states for establishing policies to facilitate online access to scientific publications financed from public funds and to ensure transnational connections and collaboration. Open access to data and publications is a fundamental principle of the future R&D framework programme, Horizon 2020, a principle the EU executive still has to spell out more precisely.
Open access to data and publications is a fundamental principle of the future Horizon 2020 programme
On 17 July, the Commission is set to sign memoranda of understanding with the leading associations involved in R&D, and in particular in the EU framework programme. These include the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), the European University Association (EUA) and Science Europe.
With these ‘pacts’, the associations agree to implement certain actions, which will be supplemented by measures proposed by the Commission, like those on open access to data. In its draft communication, the Commission cautions the partners, however. If they do not produce the expected results by 2014, it may consider more coercive measures: legislative measures in priority sectors or ultimately the adoption of a framework directive.