The people of France and the Netherlands will vote next week on whether their respective governments should ratify the proposed European constitution. Despite the traditional roles of both nations as stalwart supporters of greater European unity, their leaders have failed to generate much popular enthusiasm for the document, and both votes are expected to be close.

Research and innovation are critical to Europe's future, but have failed to emerge as an issue in the referendum campaigns. That's a shame, because their successful pursuit could hinge on the outcome of these votes.

The handful of pages in the lengthy constitution document that deal directly with research read blandly, and have inspired little enthusiasm in the scientific community. But there are aspects of the constitution that would herald significant changes in the science policy of the European Union (EU). Previous treaties, for example, have given the EU a remit to support research only as a means of bolstering industrial competitiveness. The constitution would authorize the EU to support science for its own sake.

The constitution would also tie up various loose ends in science policy. The European Research Council, for example, which is being established to support curiosity-driven research, has no legal basis in existing EU statutes, and might be contested by any member state that chose to oppose it. The constitution brings this badly needed new agency safely within the legal remit of the EU.

And the document gives the European Commission powers to remove “legal land fiscal obstacles” to scientific cooperation across borders. It also embraces the right to conduct scientific research “free of constraint”, and upholds academic freedom in universities. These components would be steps towards a more open and democratic research system.

Additionally, the constitution is the only instrument on the table that will allow the EU to develop politically, by removing the veto powers of individual states on the Council of Ministers, and by further strengthening the European Parliament. If these reforms succeed, they will help to confer much-needed legitimacy on EU institutions, and better enable the union to represent its 450 million people on the world stage.

Progress on this has been slow and cumbersome, and the verbosity of the proposed constitution reflects this challenge. Rejecting it will change nothing for scientists who find the EU to be remote and bureaucratic. Accepting it will, at least, open up opportunities for those who want to strengthen European science.