New ERA heralds circulation boost for European research

Commissioner accelerates plan to ease flow of EU researchers and funding. Paul Jump reports

February 9, 2012

Credit: Reuters
Speaking frankly: commissioner vows to 'name and shame' laggard nations

Commentators have welcomed a promise by the European commissioner for research, innovation and science to fast-track implementation of the European Research Area in the hope of boosting economic growth.

The ERA, which national governments have asked the European Commission to fully implement by 2014, is envisaged as the equivalent of the Common Market for goods, and would see researchers and funding flow freely around the European Union.

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn told last week's ERA conference in Brussels that Europe's pressing need to stimulate growth made it more urgent than ever to implement the single research area, which was first proposed in the wake of the Lisbon Summit in 2000.

Doing so would help to avoid duplication and promote collaboration, she said, while the more competitive research landscape it would create would drive up quality.

"We can't continue with a situation where research funding is not always allocated competitively, where positions are not always filled on merit, where researchers can't take their grants across borders, where large parts of Europe are not even in the game, and where there is a scandalous waste of female talent," she said.

She was dismissive of progress on voluntary implementation, describing the case for legislating as "compelling". But since that could take a "very long time", she proposed to ask governments and research councils to sign up to pacts that would contain a plan for the implementation of "a small number of big-ticket items that will make the biggest impact on the economy", such as grant mobility, merit-based recruitment and measures to support female scientists. She also pledged to "name and shame" countries that drag their feet on implementation.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, said he had been consistently impressed by the commissioner's plain speaking. "If we have a chance to pull this off, it is under her reign," he said.

He predicted that a legislative approach would ultimately be needed, claiming that Europe's other four freedoms of circulation - of people, goods, capital and services - would never have been realised by voluntary agreement.

His personal view was also that European research funding should be pooled and distributed by a "top-down European Research Council" that would identify the "absolute top researchers on topics".

But he accepted the political difficulties of such a move and said he could "live with" the commissioner's intention to concentrate on making European research funding mechanisms more interoperable, with synchronised funding calls and unified peer evaluation.

Luke Georghiou, vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester, agreed that "lagging countries" would not want to risk their researchers missing out in a larger selection pool and would permit only "marginal transfers" of their funding when there was a real reason to do it, such as securing the participation of a key collaborator.

He also doubted that the threat of naming and shaming would guarantee implementation of the pacts.

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