European cross-border collaboration must be more bottom-up

No policy initiative within research-intensive universities can be sustainable without researchers perceiving clear added value, says Sari Lindblom

March 25, 2023
A network of wooden blocks with people icons on them
Source: iStock

In late 2019, universities across Europe were encouraged to learn that, for the first time, the political responsibilities for research, innovation and education would be united in the same European Commission portfolio. At the same time, the aspiration was reemphasised that the European Research Area (ERA) and European Education Area (EEA) would enable seamless transnational collaboration in research, innovation and education across the continent. Research-intensive universities in particular had high hopes that this would lead to unprecedented synergies and allow for coordinated European education and research strategies, policies and investments. So far, however, this unique opportunity has not been fully seized.

Initially conceived by Emmanuel Macron as a driver of European competitiveness, the European Universities Initiative is a natural vehicle to boost provision of high-quality, high-impact teaching and research in Europe and beyond. This ambition is at the core of Una Europa. We are 11 research-intensive members that have jointly secured €1.5 billion (£1.3 billion) from the Horizon 2020 programme between 2014 and 2020, hosting 485 European Research Council grants in the same period. We have transcended boundaries of discipline, institution and geography to test a unique model for transnational collaboration. In research and innovation, we are approaching an important crossroads.

Una Europa has taken the first steps towards a common R&I ecosystem, anchored in shared research capacities and driven by partner institutions’ complementary strengths. This includes the development of our first joint R&I strategy, focused on underpinning our role as a vehicle for addressing global challenges and boosting European competitiveness. But what we really need is a more streamlined, integrated and long-term policy and funding approach from the commission that supports higher education institutions as key actors of the ERA and EEA, following the core principles of excellence, impact and quality enhancement.

This more strategic approach requires enabling policy initiatives and targeted funding streams at regional, national and European levels, including allowing for co-investment of these sources. The funding must be competitively allocated and provide the same international label of quality for university alliances as the European Research Council gives to frontier researchers.

No policy initiative within research-intensive universities can become sustainable without researchers perceiving clear added value from it. Engaging the whole academic community is paramount but, given the many competing demands that researchers must juggle, it remains a challenge. With this in mind, investment in funding instruments to incentivise individual academics to collaborate is vital.

A paradigm shift is needed, from top-down funding instruments to more bottom-up collaborative opportunities. To be a true incentive for deep, long-term research collaboration in a transnational context, these opportunities must have as wide a scope as possible and allow for interdisciplinary research perspectives. Such investigator-driven collaborations are the very foundation of innovation in Europe.

In addition, the openness of present and future European Union R&I programmes must remain a top priority. The European higher education sector must continue to push the continent’s strategic partners from across the world to fully participate in present and future framework programmes – not least our closest neighbours, the UK and Switzerland. The most pressing global and societal challenges know no boundaries, so the same must hold true for research collaboration.

Sari Lindblom is rector of the University of Helsinki, one of 11 partner universities of the Una Europa alliance.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles