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…but still has a way to go to achieve true unity

Europe is struggling to become a truly collaborative research and innovation area, according to a paper published in Science on 8 February.

The six authors, based at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, conclude that despite policies intended to encourage integration, such as the creation of a European Research Area, “Europe remains a collection of loosely coupled national innovation systems”.

As indicators of integration, the team used data on patent collaborations and citations, and inventor mobility and co-publishing, which included all patents filed with the European Patent Office from 1986 to 2010 (2.4 million) and a random selection of about 260,000 scientific papers published between 1991 and 2009 (around 2 per cent of the total global output in that period). They found that R&D collaboration patterns continue to reflect national boundaries.

The authors also compared EU collaborations with those in other OECD countries, which co-author Alexander Petersen says sets their work apart from previous studies. They found that although pan-European collaborations increased over the past two decades, those between non-EU OECD countries are increasing at the same rate.

A spokesman for the European Commission admitted that the goal of truly collaborative European research has still not been reached, despite more than a decade of effort. “Europe is not joined up as a research area,” the spokesman said. “Progress towards a European Research Area has been too slow, and we need a major effort from all sides now.”

Thomas Scherngell, a senior researcher in the foresight and policy development department at the Austrian Institute of Technology, says the Italian group’s patent network results are “very interesting”, but the authors’ conclusions are “too strong”. He points out that patents may not be a good indicator for integration, as the companies that end up producing the patent are local, while the research that led to the development of the patent may have been international.

According to Petersen, the team plans to follow up their work with a much larger set of publications. They want to look at the role of scientific hubs in regional and international collaboration and find out which fields are most successful in achieving global collaboration.