An ERA with impact needs broad and excellent research

Politicians developing the European Research Area must grasp how new knowledge comes about – and what it can do, says Jan Palmowski

May 24, 2021
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The European Research Area (ERA) is regaining momentum. After the European Commission set out its ERA priorities last September, and the member states responded positively in December, it is clear that ERA will be a key priority for the European Union in the coming years. But what will this mean – and how will it be achieved?

ERA was launched in 2000 with the aim of creating a “single market for knowledge, research and innovation” on the continent. Progress has been slow, but representatives of the member states and the commission have now created an expert group to develop a “pact for research and innovation” that spells out ERA’s values, fundamental goals and mode of delivery.

It is good that the EU is now committed to accelerating progress. But since ERA is about the more effective coordination of European and national research systems, it is crucial that member states and the commission develop it together. This raises two issues.

First, until recently, stakeholders have barely been consulted. At a first formal consultation in late April, university representatives were presented with key areas of agreement within the expert group. But consulting universities and other research organisations at this late stage is very different from seeking their views from the beginning.

The commission has now responded to these concerns by arranging a further meeting with stakeholders, but the principle holds: if ERA is to be effective, the commission must create effective ways of involving those who are critical to its success – researchers. It must ensure that consultations are structured and transparent. And we need an effective link between stakeholder consultations in national systems and at the European level.

Second, consultation must not be limited to EU member states. Associated countries to Horizon Europe will have observer status, so will be part of the debates. But countries such as the UK and Norway, which intend to associate, have not finalised their status yet, while political wrangling over Switzerland’s wider relationship with the EU means that the nation may not be able to associate any time soon. An effective ERA without three of the countries that are so essential for the European research system is hard to imagine. They must be part of its designs from the start.

Current ideas about the ERA pact closely reflect the commission’s original proposal of last September. This has at its heart accelerating the transition to a green and digital economy – the commission’s key policy objective, alongside supporting Europe’s technological sovereignty, the creation of start-ups and the EU’s industrial strategy. It wants ERA to be more responsive to society’s needs.

What is currently missing is a holistic appreciation of the true value of research. What about its cultural and social value? What about the need for enhanced understanding of societal challenges – and an enhanced understanding of them?

Indeed, if ERA is simply about industrial innovation, start-ups and scale-ups, we miss a crucial trick. What Europe’s societies need is enhanced well-being and the overcoming of economic, cultural and social divides. For this, we need social and cultural innovation as much as economic and environmental transformation.

Given the pact’s current focus on economic transformation, it must give at least equal emphasis to the critical enabler of innovation – excellent frontier research. At a time when the European Research Council is faced with deteriorating success rates and national budgets for frontier research are under pressure, Europe’s research systems must continue to enable world-class investigator-driven science.

The pact for research and innovation needs to set a careful and effective strategic and governance framework for ERA. We then need to identify priorities where Europe’s research systems can align. This alignment could be structural – for instance, in how we reward researchers – or it could be thematic – such as strengthening Europe’s capacity in AI research.

If we get both of these priorities right, ERA will move from theory to practice. But there must be a genuine dialogue between politicians and researchers that pays close attention to what actually enables excellent research, as well as to the range of possibilities afforded by new knowledge.

Research systems do need to respond to political concerns. But they can only do so effectively if policymakers are also responsive to the needs of science.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities and professor of modern history at the University of Warwick.

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