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European Research Area - guide

17 July 2012
by eub2 -- last modified 17 July 2012

The European Commission has today set out concrete steps Member States should take to achieve the European Research Area (ERA), a Single Market for research and innovation in Europe. The goal is to enable researchers, research institutions and businesses to better move, compete and co-operate across borders. This will strengthen Member States' research bases, increase their competitiveness and allow them to work together more effectively to tackle major societal challenges, such as climate change, food and energy security and public health. To help achieve the European Research Area, the Commission has also today signed a Joint Statement and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with organisations representing key research organisations and research funding bodies. The proposals are a response to the deadline set by EU leaders to make the European Research Area a reality by 2014.


What is the European Research Area?

The European Research Area is defined as a unified research area, open to the world in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely and through which the Union and its Member States strengthen their scientific and technological bases, their competitiveness and their capacity to collectively address grand challenges. The ERA concept was launched at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000. In February 2011 and again in March 2012, the European Council called for ERA to be completed by 2014.

Is ERA about creating one, single research area?

ERA is based, and will remain based, on the research systems of the Member States funded from national tax revenues. These will remain distinct, allowing Europe to capitalize on its scientific, cultural and geographical diversity. However, to achieve a globally competitive ERA for Europe to play a leading role in addressing grand challenges and in which all Member States participate, national systems must be more open to each other and to the world, more inter-connected and more inter-operable.

How does the ERA affect European citizens?

The European Research Area's overarching rationale is to increase the performance, excellence and impact of Europe's R&D system. This will help the EU get back on the path of economic growth by fostering scientific excellence, underpinning increased innovation and raising the attractiveness of the EU as a research location. It will notably help speed up finding solutions to societal challenges such as the ageing of our population or energy security. Measures in favour of a digital ERA would benefit researchers all over Europe, and particularly those in smaller and less-advanced Member States and regions. The combination of ERA and Horizon 2020 - the Commission proposal for research and innovation - is expected to generate an extra 1.17% of growth and almost 1.1 million more jobs annually by 2030. ERA would also have a positive impact on fundamental rights, in particular regarding respect for gender equality.

What has been achieved since the launch of ERA?

Since the 2007 ERA Green Paper and ERA Partnership Initiatives in 2008, efforts by the EU, Member States, associated countries and stakeholders have resulted in substantial progress. For example, the development of research infrastructures has been helped by the combination of a strategic body, a clear roadmap and legislation. In addition, the 2008 'European Partnership for Researchers' has led to improved research career management in a growing number of institutions. Successful Commission initiatives supported by the Framework Programme include: the European Research Council for frontier research; ERA-NETs for the coordination of European, national and regional research programmes (e.g. E-Rare co-ordinating about half of rare disease research in Europe); 'Article 185s' which integrate EU, national and regional efforts into single European programmes (e.g. the EMRP metrology initiative pooling 44% of EU-wide resources for measurement science); and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (which to date have made mobility possible for over 50,000 researchers). However, viewed overall, progress has been patchy and uneven across different dimensions of ERA and different Member States and urgently needs to be accelerated.

Why will progress be any faster now than it has been for the past ten years?

Progress will accelerate with the actions that the Communication proposes because the approach is now more focused, and it is based on trust and transparency. There will be a new, broader partnership involving the organisations that do the research, that put researchers to work and that produce the knowledge. Major European Stakeholder organisations have committed themselves to take the action that makes a difference. Finally,a new monitoring mechanism will make it easier to measure progress.

What areas has the Commission chosen to focus on and why?

The five key priorities are: increasing the effectiveness of national research systems; improving trans-national competition and cooperation, including on key research infrastructures; a more open labour market for researchers; gender equality and mainstreaming in organisations carrying out and selecting research projects; and optimal circulation and transfer of scientific information. They were identified following input from Member States, an extensive consultation of stakeholders and on the basis of their compelling political logic; the potential for radical improvement; short-term feasibility; the basis they will create for sustained long-term reform; and that no additional public resources are required.

International cooperation is another important aspect of the European Research Area but will be addressed in a separate communication in the autumn.

Will ERA widen the innovation divide and induce brain drain?

No, on the contrary. There exists currently a large diversity of national and regional research and innovation systems in Europe, and related differences in performance. Completing ERA will bring new opportunities for all Member States, helping to close this innovation divide. It will help regions to advance through smart specialisation, with each focusing on their areas of strength. Researchers will then congregate in these centres of excellence resulting in brain circulation, not brain drain. Horizon 2020 and the Structural Funds will support this.

Why is there a need to give renewed impetus to the European Research Area initiative?

The primary reason is the financial crisis. This has created an overwhelming need for growth and jobs, coupled with the increasingly urgent need for solutions to problems caused by the ageing of the population or climate change, and the fact that science underpinning innovative and potentially growth-intensive solutions to such problems is becoming more collaborative. All these factors mean that ERA is an idea whose time has come.

What exactly will be the role of the different partners?

To deliver, the Commission proposes a smarter, more focused partnership approach than has existed up until now involving Member States, the Commission and research funding and performing organisations. Member States are the major drivers for change, as they have the power to remove most of the barriers to competition and cooperation within and across borders, to create optimum conditions for exploiting human capital regardless of nationality and gender, and to improve the circulation of knowledge.

Many research stakeholders, such as research funding councils, universities and other research performing organisations, are autonomous, although not independent from Member States. They should and will also be involved directly in the achievement of the ERA. Stakeholder commitment to jointly contribute to realising the ERA has been secured initially with a number of the main European representative organisations.

The Commission will support all efforts to realise ERA wherever it can with the means available, including by the forthcoming Horizon 2020 programme and the next round of Structural Funds, and will lead by example.

What does achieving the European Research Area cost?

ERA is about value for taxpayers' money. It is the counterpart to the EU's target to collectively spend 3% of GDP on research. To reach this goal, Member States (and the private sector) will need to spend more on research, but we also want them to spend it better. ERA is thus about bringing benefits with little or no additional expenditure by being more efficient and exploiting cross-border synergies and complementarities. This was one of the considerations when selecting areas for action at national level. Any future costs to the EU budget arising from ERA are already covered by the European Commission's Horizon 2020 proposals, currently being discussed by the Parliament and Council.

What will be the relationship between ERA and the Horizon 2020 programme?

The Horizon 2020 programme, currently being discussed in Parliament and by the Council, will be the financial pillar of the Union's actions to create the Innovation Union. The actions in the ERA communication will be the non-financial pillar. Both are closely interlinked: funding measures are crucial to accompany the realisation of ERA, notably through their effect on coordination, common agenda setting and pooling of resources, and to continue shaping the landscape of European research institutions.

Horizon 2020 will support the ERA policy priorities (e.g. researcher mobility and careers, research infrastructures, knowledge transfer, etc.), the monitoring of progress and will foster stronger partnerships with Member States and the private sector to invest more efficiently. It will lead by example in gender, ethical issues and Open Access to research results.

But, on its own, Horizon 2020 will not change the structure of national research policies and systems nor remove the legal and practical obstacles for achieving ERA, as called for by the European Council. That is why the current Communication is needed.

How will progress in the completion of ERA be monitored?

The European Commission will regularly monitor the implementation of ERA by Member States and by research funding and research performing organisations, closely connected to the monitoring of the Innovation Union. An annual ERA-Progress report to Parliament and Council will present an assessment of progress on the actions taken and, when needed, will include ERA-specific recommendations for Member States with a major review of progress to be completed by 2013-2014.

What is the current level of competition amongst researchers, research teams and institutions in the EU and why is this considered insufficient?

There is clear evidence in academic literature that excellence in science is linked to competition between researchers. But researchers, universities and research institutions throughout the EU do not face the same level of competition for accessing public funding. For example, on average 40% of public funding (i.e. government budget appropriations or outlays on research and development – GBAORD) is allocated through open competitive calls for research proposals, but the situation is very variable from country to country (20% to 80%). The majority of universities in the EU still heavily rely on public 'institutional' non-competitive funding – i.e. not related to performance (OECD, 2011).

To what degree are Europe's research systems currently fragmented and why is this problematic?

According to estimates by the European Commission, only 0.8% of national GBAORD (government budget appropriations or outlays on research and development) is used for joint programmes identified by Member States, including those supported or co-funded by the EU budget, such as ERA-Nets, Article 185 activities, etc. The rest is basically spent in non-connected ways in the different Member States, with little or no exchange of information, best practices, or strategic agendas. Fragmentation of research systems in Europe is bad because it often leads to duplication of the efforts, and is especially problematic when research aims to address grand challenges, where efforts need to reach a critical mass. One opportunity for enhancing the quality and impact of research is to open the national systems, by strategically aligning different sources of national and other funding, even without cross-border funding per se.

Can you give an example of current obstacles linked to inter-operability of national research programmes?

The way national research programmes are currently organised and operate does not provide sufficient flexibility for cross-border cooperation. Only some national programme cycles are synchronised, while proposal and project evaluation systems and notably the use of fair and transparent international peer review selection differ. Accounting rules and the modalities and conditions for participation of non-resident research performers in national R&D programmes vary across countries and across different types of programmes. As a result, it is difficult for researchers, SMEs, foundations or universities to establish cross-border research projects using national project funding. For funding agencies themselves it is also cumbersome to adapt to different rules when interacting with other countries every time. For all research actors, it is also very hard to keep an overview of rules in the EU and Member States.

What is international peer-review?

Peer review is a process of evaluation involving independent qualified individuals, or peers, within the relevant field. Peer review lies at the heart of any excellence-based research policy, as it forms the basis for decisions on which research(ers) will be funded. International peer review also involves non-domestic experts. Core principles have been set out in the "voluntary guidelines on framework conditions for joint programming in research" (2010).

Procedures for peer review may vary across Member States and associated countries, thereby making it difficult to compare potential and achievements. The rationale for commonly accepted peer review procedures is most pressing in the cases when actual joint funding of research takes place through competitive calls. In those instances, commonly accepted peer review procedures are essential for a smooth management of the joint calls. The Communication contains a number of proposals to address this, such as mutual recognition by Member States of evaluations confirming with principles of international peer review.

Does the Commission have data on how many researchers do move across borders? What barriers do they face?

In the last three years, about 30% of EU researchers have worked abroad for a period of at least three months. Around half of this mobile group (around 14%) have actually moved to a new employer in a different country. While this may seem a significant degree of mobility, several obstacles prevent European research from benefiting from a genuine European labour market and so compromise the completion of ERA.

Among the most important is the lack of transparent, open and merit-based recruitment. This has a negative impact on the attractiveness of research careers, mobility, gender equality and research performance. Increased accessibility of national grants to non-nationals/ non-residents and cross-border portability of national grants would make mobility easier.

Support to inter-sectoral mobility is often lacking, with only one in six researchers in academia having experience in the business sector, and there are significant disparities between Member States (MORE Study, 2010).

How widespread is the lack of open recruitment of researchers, and what could be the consequence for European science?

On average, every year there are around 40,000 researchers' vacancies, amongst which 9,600 are professorship positions (Technopolis, 2010), but how many of them are filled on merit is unknown. In seven Member States open researchers' positions are not (or rarely) advertised through the common jobs portal, Euraxess, while in other countries the use of Euraxess varies significantly, creating information asymmetries for potential candidates.

In several Member States, institutions lack autonomy to select and hire staff. For example, in nine Member States (DE, CZ, ES, FR, EL, HU, IE, PT, SK), universities and research performing organisations face tight restrictions over hiring staff. In four Member States (CZ, HU, SK, EL) the appointment of some or all senior positions needs to be confirmed by an external authority.

In one study, up to 70% of researchers cited past experiences of "finding a suitable position", as a 'major' obstacle to possible future mobility (MORE survey), and they explained this partly by a lack of open and transparent recruitment procedures. A similar finding came out of the public consultation on the ERA framework in which 78% of respondents considered lack of open recruitment as one of the main factors hindering international mobility.

Source: European Commission