If the plan set out on 11 May by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Europe's research commissioner, comes to fruition, the continent may finally realize its long-standing goal of a single market for science and technology. Her proposals aim to break down barriers to the transfer of knowledge and researchers, as well as to reform regulations that hamper high-tech businesses.

The plan has three key elements. It would create a single patent system that would grant companies protection for their inventions across all the European Union (EU) member states at once, removing the need to file separate patents in multiple countries. It would also set up an EU-wide pension scheme to make it easier for researchers to move around the continent. At present, pensions are not transferable from one member state to the next, which discourages movement. Finally, it would increase public procurement: directing the money that EU agencies spend on areas such as telecommunications, energy-efficient buildings and computer software towards EU businesses, thereby spurring home-grown innovation rather than going after the cheapest price abroad.

None of these ideas is new, although in the past they have struggled to gain traction. The EU patent, for example, has previously proved too controversial in too many countries to make much headway, and the others have never had a sufficiently vigorous political champion.

The goal is to create a smooth flow from research discoveries to products and services on the market.

This time things may be different. Geoghegan-Quinn was an experienced politician in her native Ireland before assuming her current post, and she has quickly earned a reputation for being no-nonsense, hard-driving and determined. And, for the first time, she is pushing an integrated plan. Instead of treating research (primarily in academic institutions) and innovation (primarily in the business world) in a piecemeal fashion, as the commission has done in the past, her plan treats them as an organic whole. The goal is to create a smooth flow from research discoveries to products and services on the market.

Geoghegan-Quinn says that the plan will refocus Europe's research efforts on a series of grand challenges facing the continent as a whole, such as climate change and an ageing population. New partnerships would bring together the EU, member states and public and private researchers to work on specific aspects of these grand challenges. For example, for the ageing-population challenge, these partnerships could work on tackling chronic diseases or on developing technologies to allow older people to stay in their homes for longer. Existing initiatives, such as Europe's multibillion-euro Framework programme for research, and the Joint Technology Initiative's public–private research partnerships, will also be integrated with the plan to avoid overlap.

Although there are some potential pitfalls in the plan — the pursuit of direct societal benefits and high-tech industrial growth cannot be allowed to undermine basic research, for example — it is on the right track. Geoghegan-Quinn's vision will come under scrutiny this autumn, when EU heads of state meet to discuss it in detail. The task now is to sustain political momentum, and to ensure that the necessary decisions are taken at that autumn summit. European research minsters should explicitly give their endorsement for moving this agenda forward when they next meet on 25 May.

Geoghegan-Quinn's reforms are especially important given Europe's current financial crisis. Budgetary pain is looming for everyone, so the kind of integration and coherence that Geoghegan-Quinn has outlined is essential for making the most effective use of the research money that scientists do have.