Commission report shows Europe's public research centres mean business

July 21, 2003

Brussels, 18 July 2003

A European Commission study of 769 public research centres across Europe, released today, dispels commonly held views that they are in decline, by demonstrating that the sector is much larger and more dynamic than generally appreciated and is radically re-inventing itself by building stronger links with industry. The research centres surveyed employ over 100,000 scientists, and in recent years have shifted from pure research to strong science-industry relationships, with much more activity in applied research than in basic research. They are therefore key to meeting the Lisbon European Council's goal of turning Europe into the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world.

European Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin said: "Public research centres have been overshadowed by the other research sectors for too long. The findings of this study will help to redress this balance, by highlighting the sector's strengths as well as its weaknesses. We must build on this knowledge to ensure that our policies help public research centres maximise their contribution to achieving a European Research Area and making the EU knowledge-based economy the most dynamic in the world."

Public research centres: establishing the facts

There is a great deal known about the evolution of universities and changing practices and structures in industrial research and development but far less is known about the third major group of knowledge producers: public research centres. (1) The sector has a long history: the oldest laboratory was founded in 1670 but almost half have been founded in the past 20 years as part of the Information Technology and biotech waves.

According to the study, Europe's public research centres handle budgets totalling over €25 billion per year. The EU's share of the government sector in total R&D expenditure is higher compared to the US or Japan (13.6% vs. 7.5% and 9.9% respectively). However, over the past decade the growth rate of direct financing by the governments declined by 1.2% in the EU, compared to a growth rate of 0.6% in the US and 4.5% in Japan.

Dispelling the myths

A common perception of the sector is that it is stagnant or even in decline, and its usefulness is often under scrutiny. According to the study this perception is wrong. Over the last few years, Europe's public research centres have witnessed significant change: their missions have altered, public sector reform and privatisation have been implemented, commercialisation has become more important, and new ways of financing and organising research have emerged.

Furthermore, the sector is large, often working on the basis of a focused mission, and serving in particular the needs of SMEs and firms in more traditional sectors. Thus, European non-university research centres can and do play a critical role in achieving the European Research Area, and as facilitators to modernise in particular the technology base of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

The study published today mapped for the first time the status of Europe's public laboratory sector. It surveyed a total of 769 research centres, while 49 were subjected to in-depth case-studies. The study was led by PREST, at the University of Manchester. Other project partners were CSI, Ecole des Mines, France; Swedish Institute for Studies in Education and Research, CSIC, Unidad de Políticas Comparadas; SPRITTE, Spain; ICCTI, ISRDS, Ecotec Consulting, Atlantis Consulting, Technopolis France and Technopolis Holland.

The study can be found at:


Some Key Facts

  • Re-orientation of missions: from government to industry

  • 100,000 researchers employed in public research sector in Europe
The 769 centres surveyed account for over €25 billion per annum (599 cases with full financial information) in their budgets and employ over 100,000 scientists (557 cases with full human resources information). The greatest number of centres (237) employ between 10 and 49 scientists comprising 6% of the total number of scientists. The greatest number of scientists work either in large organisations with more than 500 scientists (45,241 in 18 organisations) or in centres with 100 to 499 scientists (33,785 in 151 centres), comprising respectively 43% and 32% of the total number of scientists employed.

The most frequent orientation of the sector is applied research, carried out by almost all labs (92%) while basic research is carried out by just over half (50%). Development, diffusion, provision of facilities and certification and standards are further roles undertaken.

Capabilities are concentrated in engineering and technology, followed by natural sciences, but more specialised capabilities are also evident in agricultural sciences, social sciences, medicine and humanities.

In terms of linkages, national authorities are the most important contact for the centres (92% of centres where linkages are known are in this category). Industry provides the second most important direction for major linkage (57%) and overall (84%). Similar proportions have major linkages with academia and the European Commission (43% and 37% respectively). Regional authorities are less evident but one third of centres still register them as a major link.

General and policy issues

  • Importance as applied knowledge providers

  • Endangered due to severe financial constraints
Research centres provide a natural route to reach traditional industry and SMEs. They have a particular comparative advantage in areas of innovation, which are structured by regulatory change. Policies are needed to enhance their capability to support innovation and especially to maintain their intellectual capital with strategic research bases developed to counteract market pressure to perform only consulting services.

Despite some constraints, research centres use the EU Research Framework Programme (and similar national initiatives) to support their own strategic research programmes so as to develop competencies that they can market in their contract research portfolio and in order to update their intellectual capital.

There is scope for rationalisation in the provision of many of the services offered by the research centres. The overhead costs of maintaining expertise and facilities in particular areas could be borne much more easily across the European market as a whole. Growing harmonisation of public services and legislation provide a positive impetus for integration.

To achieve these benefits the following barriers would have to be overcome:

  • specificities in local markets for scientific advice and industrial services caused by variation in legislation, standards etc.,

  • differences in legal and ownership structures to perform the same mission and that currently hinders the possibilities to co-operate and interact,

  • differences in scientific and technological structures providing a setting for a particular competence.
Thus an overall framework needs to be developed that helps in removing the legal barriers while keeping the variety of institutional formats.

As major performers of applied research, being able to absorb R&D spending and to produce industry-relevant research, these centres thus contribute greatly to achieving the core European Commission objective of turning Europe into the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy as it has been set out at the March 2000 Lisbon European Council.
(1) This sector covers centres like the UK s Southampton Oceanography Centre , the Spanish Canary Islands Atrophysics Institute , the Swedish National Institute for Working Life , The Irish Economic and Social Research Institute , The Greek National Centre for Scientific Research Demokritos , the French INED or the Portuguese Institute for Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Management to name a few.

DN: IP/03/1050 Date: 18/07/2003

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