Go back

Slow progress on ERA alarms researchers

It’s vague, cumbersome and fragmented, say science groups

Concern is growing among European science organisations about the lack of progress in building the European Research Area.

ERA has no proper targets and there has been little progress on achieving free movement for researchers and knowledge, science organisations told Research Europe. The next research programme, Horizon 2020, could even go back on some of the progress made under Framework 7, the groups warn.

ERA is supposed to guarantee free movement of researchers and knowledge across the EU and between different national science centres and organisations. But in a position paper published on 22 November, the Helmholtz Association, a prestigious group of German applied-research centres, says that ERA’s lack of clear targets, combined with evermore cumbersome funding conditions, is deterring Helmholtz centres from participating in the initiative.

The 11-page Helmholz paper, which responds to a Commission communication on ERA, calls for more transparent priority setting and measurable objectives to encourage progress on ERA. “Prerequisite to our further support to this ‘project’ is its simplicity and lucidity from the user perspective,” the paper states.

The Helmholtz Association, which employs 30,000 researchers, also criticised the Commission’s proposals for the future funding of research, saying Horizon 2020 risks undoing previous efforts to unite basic and applied research as part of ERA. Horizon 2020 splits its budget into three pillars: excellence, which houses the European Research Council, industrial leadership and social challenges.

“We see a danger here that Horizon 2020 will segregate basic research to the pillar for excellent science, and neglect the point that the other two pillars also need basic research projects in order to create interesting products and services,” says Susan Kentner, head of Helmholtz’s Brussels office.

The idea of ERA was first developed in 2000 under commissioner Philippe Busquin and has since been enthusiastically embraced by successive research commissioners. However, its main target of free movement for scientists and research projects has made only gradual progress, with national politics on social security, knowledge transfer and funding continuing to obstruct mobility.

ERA remains a moving target, and is nowhere close to completion, says Jerzy Langer, a physicist and member of Europe’s learned academy Academia Europaea. “The common market for research is not even at an early stage, as science policy is in most countries a national privilege,” he says. “There is no real harmonisation, which results in duplication, and no benchmarking or unification of grant systems.”

Instead, the Commission has taken to marking its projects and initiatives with the ERA stamp, and publishing reports to ‘reinvent’ ERA. In July this year, the Commission published its latest ERA communication based on a consultation, which states that ERA should be completed in 2014.

Peter Tindemans, the secretary general of scientists’ group Euroscience, says this is improbable, and ERA’s fragmentation into dozens of different initiatives is impeding progress. “The concept of ERA is a bit vague. The Commission has created far too many instruments for this, and they have not always been successful,” Tindemans says. “It would be better if the Commission would limit ERA to five or so actions, and then you could complete them within two or three years.”

The Commission says it is confident that its communication on ERA is the right way forward. A spokesman said that the wide-ranging differences between member states mean not all ERA programmes are equally beneficial for everyone. “Of course we now have to implement ERA on the ground, taking into account different situations in different member states,” he says. “These could not all be captured in detail in the communication.”