Covid-19 should spur greater integration in European science

A renewed European Research Area can be a fresh call to arms for scientific excellence across the continent, says Jan Palmowski

May 12, 2020
A European flag with the coronavirus replacing the stars
Source: iStock/aprott

With the European Commission and individual member states at the core of an international scientific initiative to find a vaccine for Covid-19, the focus is again on cross-border international collaboration. And it throws light on a wider question: can we finally create a European Research Area (ERA), in which the free circulation of researchers and ideas moves from ideal to reality?

A single area for science was first proposed after the UK, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. With the UK now having left the bloc, the remaining members are revisiting the European basis for deepening collaboration and setting common objectives for research across borders.

The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the sense that renewing the ERA should be an urgent priority. With this in mind, Mariya Gabriel, the new European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and sport, will present the commission communication on the renewed ERA in the summer.

The original vision for a common European science area was proposed by the German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who, at the time, was the EEC’s commissioner for research, science and education. Its aims were to boost both Europe’s industrial competitiveness and its quality of life, through research collaboration (including on fundamental research), researcher mobility and common research infrastructures.

However, by the 1990s, it was clear that the European Union was lagging behind in the coordination of national science policies. Hence, in 2000, the commission launched the ERA, whose goal was to guide the design of the research framework programmes and the harmonisation of national policies and structures.

The ERA received an immediate boost from the Lisbon Strategy: a 10-year economic plan aimed at making Europe “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. Member states subsequently committed themselves to spending 3 per cent of their gross domestic product on research and innovation.

Since then, however, progress has been partial at best. By far the greatest success story lies in the realisation of the European Strategy for Research Infrastructure, which has created a system for pooling the development of large capital projects. But nation states’ average spending on research and innovation has, in reality, risen only marginally, from about 1.7 per cent of GDP in 2000 to 2.06 per cent in 2019, and many national research priorities are still not aligned with those of the EU.

Meanwhile, despite the existence of free movement, an open labour market for researchers is far from a reality because of nations’ failure to coordinate on issues such as pensions. And progress towards gender equality has been slow and uneven, with the 2018 ERA Progress Report noting that “a glass ceiling persists in most countries”.

But science has changed rapidly since 2000, as have the societies within which scientists engage. So are the ERA goals still fit for purpose?

One concern is that academic freedom can no longer be taken for granted. It is under threat even in some parts of the EU. So any renewal of the ERA must begin with an explicit and central commitment to the ability of the researcher to deliver the best science free from political interference.

The ERA must be committed to open science, coordinating member states in this important transition so that unacceptable cross-border disparities are not created in resources, support and standards for open science.

There is also a greater pressure for research to contribute to overcoming social divides, thereby increasing public support for the cost of supporting it. Scientists must find ways to maximise the social value of their research, developing a new understanding of when citizen engagement in the process is appropriate – and when it is not. Especially in light of Covid-19, a commitment to the social value of research must not undermine the recognition that frontier science is essential, and must be driven by scientists, resisting top-down coordination.

Nevertheless, the core purpose of the ERA remains the same: to strengthen the excellence of research across the entire area. Whatever new goals are adopted, we must also restate and re-energise the existing ones.

Achieving gender equality and diversity among researchers at all levels is more urgent than ever. Researcher mobility in all directions is crucial to ensure that all European academic institutions have access to outstanding talent. And European research must always be open to the world.

That said, the flow of researchers must be made more equitable between European research systems: free movement is unsustainable if it is a one-way street to those institutions that are already strong. Relatedly, we must reduce the performance gap between research systems by strengthening weaker systems. This requires both sustained national investment and a more strategic and flexible use of European regional funding. Any measures that compromise scientific excellence must be avoided.

Above all, it is worth going back to Dahrendorf’s original aims. In pursuit of the Lisbon Agenda, we have become too accustomed to justifying science in narrow economic terms. If a renewed ERA also serves to enhance the effectiveness of science in supporting citizens at a time of crisis, to improve quality of life and to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, then it will not only excite scientists. It will also capture the public imagination and compel politicians.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-intensive Universities and a professor of modern history at the University of Warwick.

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