Cooperate to contend

December 21, 2001

Research collaboration in Europe could be the way to compete with the US, says Ian Halliday.

It seems appropriate in the week after the research assessment exercise results to turn from a domestic focus to an international one and to look at how Britain can compete with the money and might of the Americans. One way is to go beyond national barriers and focus on a collective European research effort.

At last year's Lisbon Summit, the premiers of the European Union nation states agreed that they wanted to turn Europe into the "most advanced knowledge-driven economy in the world". This is no small task.

The European Research Area (ERA) is an umbrella under which many questions shelter. First, is Europe capable of competing with the United States in research and, if it is, how can we explain why European postdocs go en masse to the US and not vice-versa? Second, can we say that the current primarily national research system optimises European output? Third, what is the correct balance between concentrating resources in the best universities and keeping the regions engaged in research? And finally, how do we answer the perennial criticisms of European Commission peer-review and bureaucracy?

To address these issues and more, the commission has set up the European Research Advisory Board (Eurab), a joint committee made up mainly of academic and business representatives. Unlike its predecessors, Eurab has been given independence of action and strong financial support. So for the first time we have an independent high-level source of advice to the research directorate-general in Brussels.

Issues it may look at include the role of universities in the ERA, the implications of enlargement of the European Union, improving relations between academia and industry and increasing the attractiveness of science and technology as a profession. None of these is new, but each comes with numerous sub-agendas.

Eurab will provide a strategic overview, but its working groups that will tackle the nitty-gritty of the issues will have to attract effective membership for this to work. This is a chicken-and-egg situation. Busy people are willing to put effort only into effective organisations. I believe that European science and scientists are being offered a chance to influence EC policy and that Eurab can help to change the face of European research.

But Eurab is clearly only one player among the many organisations hoping to have an impact, including the European Heads of Research Councils (Eurohorcs). Many in Eurohorcs want to move rapidly to a single European Research Council and do away with national research councils. Others see no added value in a single council. Philippe Busquin, the European commissioner responsible for research, would like to integrate EU spending with national budgets. These political, managerial and scientific pressures are changing the terms of the European research debate.

There is also a tension between those who see European collaboration as vital and those who support the competitive approach of the US. Collaboration is comparatively easy to arrange between national funding agencies. A continent-wide competitive approach is harder. It is already clear in Eurab that national research in industry has been superseded by a more global focus, with companies going wherever the best research is found, regardless of boundaries.

As the European political debate turns towards Europe's knowledge and research base, questions over the value of Europe-wide research can only grow in importance because of the social, financial and cultural consequences involved. We need to ensure that scientists play a leading role in determining the outcome of such debates.

Ian Halliday is chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, vice-chair of Eurab, a member of the Governing Council of the European Science Foundation and a UK scientific delegate to the Cern Council.

* Is Europe-wide research the way forward? Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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