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Making Europe a better place for research

European Union unveils its vision for 2020.

The EU: a better place for research by 2020. Credit: Wikepedia

Research ministers from European Union (EU) countries met in Brussels this week to discuss a way forward on the European Research Area (ERA), a political strategy to integrate Europe's research efforts. At the EU Competitiveness Council on 1–2 December, they agreed on the Vision 2020, which sets out what the ERA will look like in 2020 and includes the first steps towards coordinating national research programmes.

Why do we need an ERA?

To create a unified area across Europe such that researchers can move and work freely, unhindered by social and political systems, and knowledge produced in one country is easily accessible in others. It was first conceived in March 2000 as part of the Lisbon strategy, which had the goal of making the EU the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world.

What's happened since then?

The ERA has made slow progress. In 2007, the European Commission tried to revive the ERA, leading to a May 2008 agreement by EU member states on the Ljubljana process, under which the current French presidency of the EU was charged with defining the broad aims for the ERA by 2020 — the '2020 Vision'.

What does the 2020 Vision say?

That by 2020 the ERA should be fully functional – allowing researchers, technology and scientific knowledge to move around the EU effectively. There should be an open market for contract research, and more scope for scientists outside a particular member state to apply for funding from national agencies.

It also says that EU universities should be modernized, and teaching, research and innovation should be promoted at all levels. It commits to building world-class research facilities, such as synchrotrons, research vessels or biomedical databases, with EU funding "where appropriate". And Europe should be an attractive place for businesses to invest in research and development.

The EU's Research Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, says that the agreement is "a strong political message showing we have faith in the future".

What's the next step?

Next year, the European Commission will propose how to assess progress towards achieving the goals, so that some of the talk translates into action.

Research ministers have also agreed to coordinate national research programmes in areas that deal with major societal challenges, such as climate change, health and energy supply. The aim is to avoid duplication of research being carried out in different member states' national research programmes, and to put national science budgets to better use. These joint programmes are seen as key pillars in the creation of the ERA.

A pilot project in the area of neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, is expected to kick off next year, with a progress report in 2010. Nine EU member states, including France, Italy and the United Kingdom, have already signed up to the project.

What will the ERA mean for researchers?

The overall aim is to make Europe an easier place for researchers to work in. Through specific initiatives being set up as part of the ERA, such as the European Partnership for Researchers, scientists will be able to move from one member state to another for work without losing their pension and social security rights and will be able to take their research grants with them. There's more emphasis on researchers' career development, and on improving working conditions, including salaries.

Meanwhile, joint programming will boost collaboration between researchers in different member states.

What still needs to be done?

Research ministers have yet to agree on a legal framework that will be recognized in all member states and will allow large EU research facilities to be established quickly. The framework aims to provide a clear exemption for such infrastructure from tax and excise duties. "Let's not lose time in case-by-case tax negotiations when we could be building these urgently needed research infrastructures," Potočnik says.

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Gilbert, N. Making Europe a better place for research. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.1280

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