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Scientific Europe’s Imperative

VIENNA – On June 29, the European Commission will present its budget proposal for the next multi-year period, which begins in 2014. It will include items such as the common agricultural policy, regional structural funds, and research and innovation. But how does the European Union envisage using these investments to shape its future?

The European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s member states are yet to have their say, as foreseen in the budget procedure. But several trends are discernible in the intense discussion that has already begun, both within the European Commission and among the various stakeholders,

For one thing, the term “framework program” will be scrapped. Even its name is up for grabs: the European Commission has just launched an open competition to come up with a new one. The goal is to capture the major underlying policy shift from a highly heterogeneous portfolio of programs – intended to support various goals in various ways and to varying degrees – to a legislative and budgetary package designed to serve as a common strategic framework.

But a framework constructed to achieve what? The strengthening of Europe’s position within an atmosphere of heightened global competitiveness remains at the forefront. The dramatic increase of China’s share in scientific publications worldwide, recently highlighted in a report by the Royal Society in London, is a good indicator of what lies ahead. The aim is no longer to become “the world’s most competitive knowledge economy,” as disingenuously announced in 2000. Rather, it has shifted in a more urgent, complex, and inherently unforeseeable way, as spelled out in the EU 2020 strategy’s vision of an “Innovation Union.”

Under this broad umbrella, research, development, and innovation (RD&I) policy must identify the right answers on two fronts: “what” and “how.” Currently, a three-pronged strategy can be discerned for the “what”: knowledge for growth (economic recovery and prosperity); knowledge for society (tackling the grand challenges ahead, from climate change and energy security to healthy aging); and knowledge for science (nurturing Europe’s science and technology base, which remains indispensible for innovation).

Under the banner of “simplification,” the “how” is gravitating towards outsourcing most of the implementation to agencies that are to be endowed, one hopes, with greater flexibility to fulfill their specific missions. This requires a smoothly working and much more efficient interface between the agencies and the European Commission, which retains overall control over them, as well as a thorough revision of the financial regulation for the entire operation and its oft-criticized bureaucratic red tape.

Some tough political choices lie ahead: Which parts of the framework program are to be continued, and which terminated? How can innovation, which is never only technological, but social as well, be achieved and fully used? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the optimal trade-offs to get EU member states and European institutions to cooperate more efficiently for a common European future?

Amid all of this turbulence, the European Research Council (ERC), established in 2007 to fund cutting-edge research, stands out at as an undisputed success story. Based on the sole principle of scientific excellence, it has put an evaluation system into place that enjoys high credibility in the scientific community. It supports individual researchers without regard to their nationality or age in a unique “bottom-up” mode, provided they work in Europe. The ERC puts its trust into the researchers it funds to know where the ”frontier” of science is.

Almost 1,800 of Europe’s best researchers have received ERC awards so far, half of them representing the future generation. The ERC’s budget amounts to no more than 0.5% of total European R&D spending, or 15% of the current Framework Program budget. European universities, recognizing the reputational gains associated with ERC grants, have started to compete for them, leading to greater awareness of the need to nurture the talented younger researchers in their midst. The ERC includes the social sciences and humanities, thereby recognizing their contributions to the evolution of societies.

Mark Twain once said, “Fewer things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” The ERC does not want to annoy, but to make a difference – for European research in a global, competitive context. It wants to build on its success in creating a truly European and highly potent research culture. It will strengthen its efforts to “go global” by attracting more scientific talent to Europe, whether researchers of European origin or others.

The ultimate outcome will depend on the strategic wisdom, political clout, and courage of Europe’s decision-makers regarding investment in Europe’s RD&I. Innovation, in the sense of doing things with what research has found out, is part of a European future. Finding out how things work is what cutting-edge research is all about.