According to the Commission, the European Research Area (ERA) would mean greater mobility of researchers, better cross-border cooperation and competition, and harmonised career structures.
Although first mooted in 1999, previous efforts to create the ERA were stymied by differences in national priorities and disparities in research performance and systems across the EU. But under agreements signed on 17 July, university groups and research organisations have for the first time committed to acting alongside member states and the Commission.
One of the chief signatories is the European University Association, which has agreed to encourage researcher mobility, to openly advertise jobs (including through the Commission's Euraxess recruitment portal), to encourage cross-border collaboration, and to strengthen research careers and PhD courses according to EU recommendations.
Meanwhile, Science Europe, which represents 50 European research funders, has agreed to facilitate cross-border research by developing common standards and practices while encouraging stringent use of peer review by members.
The European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, the League of European Research Universities and Nordforsk, a group of Nordic research organisations, signed similar agreements.
Announcing the agreements, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the research and innovation commissioner, expressed her dismay at the current situation, "where research funding is not always allocated competitively, where positions are not always filled on merit, where researchers can rarely take their grants or have access...across borders, and where large parts of Europe are not even in the game".
The Commission said it would develop a mechanism for monitoring progress on the ERA and had not ruled out legislation if progress remained slow.