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A policy package to take EU research to the next level

Europe’s priorities should be to build international institutions, help lagging states catch up, and support young innovators, says Günter Stock.

This month, I will be standing down as president of Allea, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities. During my six years in the job, I have seen Europe’s scientists, policymakers, funders and institutions make laudable progress towards bringing national research systems together within the European Research Area (ERA).

The European Research Council, for example, is providing a funding stream for excellent research and building cooperation. And on a different note, the one million ‘Erasmus babies’—in the Commission’s 2014 estimate—born to parents who met while at least one was studying abroad are a beautiful example of how academic exchange fuels social integration.

Nevertheless, many aspects of European research policy still require work. The UK’s departure from the EU also poses questions for European science in general and the development of the ERA in particular.

The constructive response would be to frame Brexit as a question of how the ERA should develop. With the next Framework programme being planned, the EU, irrespective of the UK’s role and relationship, should commit to a renewed focus on multilateralism, integration, openness and international cooperation for research and innovation.

A central topic must be capacity building. Scientific institutions in the 13 newer member states urgently need support. Helping researchers across the continent to compete on more equal terms would increase the EU’s scientific output.

To this end, the definition of infrastructure should be expanded to include higher education and research institutions. Science and education are as important to a nation’s global competitiveness as more conventional infrastructure projects, which the EU already funds.

To take integration further, the EU should create more, genuinely European, research institutions. The European particle physics centre Cern and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory have shown that such initiatives can succeed. Similar efforts could provide an interdisciplinary, European response to challenges such as climate change.

These institutions should allow targeted, thematic involvement, so that countries with limited funds could take part. Countries beyond the EU could also be included as partners in a specific task or institution.

Extra funds levied from countries with wealthy research systems could be funnelled into collaborative capacity-building schemes for member states with less successful research systems. The incentive for stronger nations would be that such policies should increase the supply of talented scientists, benefiting institutions across the continent. This gap-closing strategy must be an additional programme, not a drain on current funding schemes.

Creating EU-funded university networks of the type envisaged by French president Emmanuel Macron offers another opportunity for institution building. Some examples already exist, such as the European University Institute in Florence, and others are being planned, such as the European Campus in the Upper Rhine. They offer a template for future institutions. Again, different countries could participate to varying degrees.

Besides building physical institutions, the EU needs to better integrate support for early-career scientists, applied science and entrepreneurship, to create a path from invention to product with minimum bureaucratic and financial hurdles. Europe needs harmonised legislation on the patenting of inventions derived from multinational cooperation, for example.

The most innovative inventions come out of basic research. Europe should see the next Framework programme as an opportunity to lay the foundations for path-breaking research through a strong commitment to funding risky work outside the mainstream.

One problem highlighted by the European Commission’s monitoring reports on Horizon 2020 is the failure to support interdisciplinarity, especially regarding the integration of the social sciences and humanities. Research into societal challenges in particular requires a holistic approach from the get-go.

Future Framework programmes should include these disciplines more prominently in the design of calls for proposals. With this should come tools to assess and evaluate the merits of interdisciplinary proposals and projects, to ensure that resources are put to best use.

These, then, should be the priorities: founding and expanding European research institutions, improving support for countries with less successful research systems, increasing interdisciplinary research efforts, and enabling young scientists to become innovators. Implemented as a package, this should alleviate some of the Brexit–related fears around the future of European science on both sides of the English Channel.

Günter Stock is president of Allea, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe