A boost for European science?

The European Competitiveness Council on 26 November 2021 approved the new European Research Area (ERA), and discussed how Research and Innovation can better be integrated into wider policy goals. Have we learnt anything new?

It was clear from the beginning that the Pact for Research and Innovation (R&I), and the Council Conclusions on ERA Governance (which include the priorities for concrete ERA actions), would be adopted. Agreement had been reached at the working party level in advance of the meeting. Approval in the Council was a formality – albeit an important one. But especially given that the text does not detail the precise ways in which governance will work, member states were quick to point to a number of priorities that they needed to see ERA address, with three areas attracting particular emphasis.

First, work has already begun to develop a common framework for research careers. Member states were quick to point out the importance of this initiative, which will now be an ERA action. Germany noted the importance of involving national actors and stakeholders more in this debate. But in doing so, it signalled a commitment to make this work. What this is likely to mean is that the reform may not proceed as quickly as originally anticipated to enable national discussions to flourish. But if those discussions lead to a European framework that has national buy-in, that is all to be welcomed.

Second, objections by Poland and Hungary about the term of ‘gender’ notwithstanding, ministries singled out the importance of the Ljubljana declaration, emphasizing the need for gender balance in R&I at all levels. This gives rise to optimism that this will, in practice, become one of the more important and consequential ERA actions.

Third, a smaller number of countries mentioned the importance of including Associated and closely involved Third Countries in ERA governance. This is significant in that the text leaves much room for interpretation about how non-EU states can be involved (it talks about involving them on a ‘case by case approach’). The Commission can and should interpret these statements in the Council as backing to include these countries in the ERA governance as much as possible.

The ensuring Council discussion on the role of Research and Innovation in achieving cross-sectoral objectives was not tied to specific legislative proposals, but two points of significance stood out.

In reflecting on the role of research and innovation on society and the economy, Member States not only emphasized the importance of R&I for all walks of life. Many also made a point of emphasizing the importance of fundamental research in strengthening our resilience. The indispensable role of basic research in the discovery of mRNA vaccines against COVID was highlighted a number of times to emphasize the need for balance between fundamental and mission-oriented research. It is extremely important to register the support of the European Competitiveness Council of this critical principle of European R&I – and, one might add, of the (new) European Research Area!

Moreover, many Member States emphasized that Horizon Europe is not a ‘piggy bank’ (Germany) that can be raided at will. In the words of State Secretary Ivica Šušak (Croatia), ‘funding from Horizon Europe cannot be treated as an enabler for sectoral top-down initiatives which do not have R&I at its core’. And he added: ‘It is time to hear the perspective of other Commissioners on how they intend to invest in research and innovation relevant to their sectors’. Indeed.

The Council, then, has addressed issues that are currently at the heart of European research and innovation. How do we ensure that it is genuinely European, and not just limited in its effects on the EU? And how does the EU sustain the balance between fundamental and applied research as we address the digital and green transitions? Member states noted that the importance of science was now widely understood in Europe’s societies, and this presents an opportunity that should not go to waste. And for this, we really do need to see how other Directorates-General in the Commission build on this unique EU success story with commitments of their own!

Published Nov. 26, 2021 1:20 PM - Last modified Feb. 14, 2022 2:40 PM