Giving a last push to the construction of the renewed European Research Area
In responding to the differences between EU member states at display in the Competitiveness Council debate of 28 September, the Slovenian Presidency has now proposed a new draft for how the European Research Area might be governed. There is much to like here, but there are also important potential for improvement.
First off, the proposal includes an ERA action on Academic Freedom – elevating this issue to the top of the concerns of both member states and the Commission is as meaningful as it is timely.
Moreover, the proposal continues to bind associated and relevant third countries together. This is critical. We currently see an incursion of politics into the question of Horizon Europe association – ERA must be free of such political constraints because researchers across Europe collaborate irrespective of these wider political questions, and rightly so.
The new proposal recognises the reluctance in some member states to include stakeholders fully into ERA governance, but still tries to maximise their input, focusing more on what specifically stakeholders can contribute to different ERA ambitions. What is proposed may not be what we had wanted originally. But governing ERA bringing together so many actors will be complex. It will require trust and collaboration based on the complementarity of roles. The proposal would give stakeholders meaningful involvement without compromising their capacity to provide independent input and critique. The Slovenian Presidency proposal can be welcomed on this basis.
Furthermore, the participation of stakeholders on an individual basis (instead of a sector-level representation) in the ERA forum’s thematic sub-groups will ensure the presence of the stakeholder organisations with the most relevant expertise to contribute to the implementation of the ERA actions.
At the same time, the proposal also has some severe limitations. It includes one action on empowering ‘Higher Education Institutions to transform’ without articulating why they need to be transformed, or how. In the past 18 months there has been ample evidence that not all transformation is good in itself. Rather, the goal must be – surely – that Europe’s universities should be enabled to strengthen their global competitiveness in research, teaching, and innovation, for the benefit of society (and, ultimately, of Europe).
The ERA also does not refer, in its goals that go beyond the structures of European R&I systems, to fundamental research. Surely, we need to enhance the entire research and innovation pipeline: the green and digital transitions, for instance, cannot succeed without breakthrough fundamental research.
And finally, ERA should be bolder in boosting the excellence of lower-performing countries, for instance through a dedicated workstream on the synergies between different EU- and national- (and regional-)level funding instruments. We talk about synergies a lot. It is time to make them happen.
The case for a European Research Area, for a truly functioning single market for knowledge, is as inspiring now as it was twenty years ago. It can only succeed if it galvanises the sector. There are many concrete actions here that could make a real difference for universities. So it is all the more critical that the final document of the Council Conclusions signals the right levels of ambition, openness (not least towards associate/third countries), and concrete dedication to breakthrough research.