Brussels, 24 Nov 2005
A recent high-level conference on the coordination of national research programmes closed with participants agreeing on the unique benefits of such coordination, and pledging to work together to eliminate the barriers that still hamper the optimal integration of national research programmes.
The Manchester conference was hosted jointly by the UK Presidency and the European Commission. Attended by research policy makers from across Europe, the meeting was intended to re-invigorate the debate on this key aspect of European Research Area policy. Firstly, the conference evaluated recent initiatives to facilitate better coordination of national R&D programmes, before looking at new ways in which synergies between these programmes could be better exploited.
Despite an environment in which European public administrations collectively invest over 75 billion euro annually in R&D - an investment that is increasing as EU countries make progress towards achieving the Barcelona 3 per cent objective - the overall impact of research at both national and EU level is still limited due to fragmentation of national programmes.
With the exception of some specific cases where competitiveness or country-specific reasons may justify the insularity of national programmes, the popularity and success of the ERA-NET scheme - an EU initiative to facilitate coordination between national R&D programmes - clearly demonstrates the benefit of increased transnational coordination across a wide range of programme domains.
In order to help focus the debate, a study commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Technology (OST), entitled 'European frameworks to facilitate multilateral cooperation between national R&D programmes', reviewed the objectives and design of various EU-level organisations and instruments and the extent to which they may help to overcome barriers to transnational research cooperation.
Aside from the European Commission, whose Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) includes three initiatives to address the coordination of national programme - the CREST initiative on mutual opening of national programmes; the ERA-NET scheme and the Article 169 instrument - several other facilitating bodies were identified. These include the inter-governmental EUREKA programme, the European Science Foundation (ESF), the European Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCS) and the intergovernmental framework for Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical research (COST). Furthermore, there are other domain-specific organisations that are seeking to facilitate European coordination such as the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD), the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).
There was general consensus on the potential benefits of coordinating national research programmes. According to participants, common policy challenges (e.g. fisheries, agriculture and climate change) can be better addressed through a joint research response. Coordination also allows for exploiting complementary strengths and minimising duplication. Furthermore, trans-national coordination can provide a critical mass that may not be possible at the national level, and permits the sharing of best practice in the design and implementation of research programmes.
However, participants identified a number of barriers to optimal coordination of national programmes that still persist in Europe. These were broadly grouped into 'institutional' barriers and 'practical' barriers. Institutional barriers often derive from the primarily national focus of domestic policy making. Moreover, the priority given to international cooperation and coordination with other national research programmes at the political level is acknowledged as being too low in many fields. Practical barriers, meanwhile, include the legislation or rules that govern domestic research spending, the flexibility of funding allocations, language and currency differences.
In their conclusions, participants recognised that thanks to the bottom-up success of initiatives such as ERA-NET, programme managers have recognised the potential that exists at working level and taken advantage of the opportunities on offer to create networks, to share best practice and to plan joint activities. This has fostered the elimination of some of the practical barriers and a core of best practice has been created for the future. While participants agreed that support to initiatives reinforcing national coordination should be continued under FP7, they stressed the fact that strategic decisions on coordination actions remain the competence of the Member States.
Under the recently tabled proposals for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the Commission plans to encourage existing ERA-NET projects to go further by broadening their cooperation and activities through ERA-NET-PLUS schemes. The Commission also intends to make more extensive use of the Article 169 instrument under FP7.
Participants also concluded that for the next phase, focus should be given to eliminating the identified 'institutional' barriers. Coordination activities should be given a higher political profile at the national level in order to foster a complementary top-down strategic approach by Member States. Finally, the conference called on Member States to set priorities and define which national programmes should be more coordinated in future.