“EUROPE has a team of star players, but it is not a star team.” That frank assessment of EUROPE's weaknesses and strengths in research was how Dr Janez Potocnik, the EU Science and Research Commissioner, opened a campaign earlier this year to reform how R&D is governed in EUROPE. His effort is the most-sweeping look at EU research policy in years, and is expected to result in a series of new policy proposals from Brussels early in 2008 – proposals that could make a fundamental difference in how much EUROPE gets out of its research budget.
A push to reform the way EUROPE does research
At the moment, there is deep discontent in Brussels and most national capitals in the state of EUROPE's research base.
Sure, the latest crop of Nobel prizes were a European triumph, with two Germans, a Frenchman and a Brit dominating the 2007 Nobels in physics, chemistry and medicine. But that's an anomaly: so far this century EUROPE has won only 24% of the Nobels – down from the 33% average of 1950-1999, and 73% in the prior half-century. Only two European universities (Cambridge and Oxford) rank among the top 20 in the most-watched league table for international research universities. And while EU scientists produce more research papers than anyone else, they generally score below their American counterparts when it comes to how much the papers are cited by other scientists. Part of the problem, Potocnik argues, is that EUROPE's R&D efforts are badly organised.
For starters, there's duplicated effort: for instance, the EU counts 29 different nanotechnology- funding programmes across the 27-nation bloc, and 110 different national research grants for the study of one bacterium, campylobacter. There are inflexible rules for academic tenure, pension and employment – rules that make it difficult for researchers to move between academic and industry labs, or across borders within the EU. There are dozens of good proposals for new scientific instruments – from synchrotrons to biobanks – that never get funded because the EU members can never agree to work on them together.
Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner responsible for Science and Research
© Fotodienst.cc/Oskar Goldberger
To start fixing these and other problems, in April this year the Slovenian economist – named research commissioner after negotiating his country's accession to the EU – published a ‘Green Paper,' the Brussels term for a document calling for public comment and suggestions on a problem. The document raises 30 policy questions and mentions scores of possible solutions, but deliberately avoids backing any of them in an effort to open the dialogue to as many researchers across EUROPE as possible. Indeed, the launch of the paper was a political act in itself: an attempt to go around the national R&D agencies and mobilise the EU-wide R&D community behind the idea of change.
“How many more millions of euros are going to be spent on replicating research institutions and sexy areas of research?” the Commissioner exclaimed, while speaking at a June 2007 conference on the subject organised by R&D news service Science|Business, and co-sponsored by Microsoft. “We simply don't have the luxury of time.”
In his view, what's needed is a Fifth Freedom of the European Union: that knowledge should be able to move as freely across EU borders as do the other four, more widely recognised freedoms of movement for goods, services, capital and people. “These are the realities that EUROPE is facing,” said the Commissioner: the Green Paper “is confronting the reality that EUROPE does not have freedom of movement of knowledge.”
At the conference, the Commissioner got plenty of suggestions. Prof. I.T. Young, of TU Delft, argued for more meritocracy in EU research grants – “in the sense that it is having the creative ideas, and not the right connections, that count.”
The EU Science and Research Commissioner's 2007 Green Paper is the mostsweeping look at EU research policy in years, and is expected to result in a series of new policy proposals from Brussels early in 2008.
Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research EUROPE, spoke of the disparity of skill levels between young European and American computer scientists: “What can we do to make our PhDs more competitive?”
Others argued for a greater policy focus on innovation clusters – communities of universities, corporate labs and suppliers, that could become regional engines for innovation. There were calls for a new ‘scientific visa', to make it easier for non- European scientists to move from lab to lab once they're inside the EU. And there was abundant criticism of the EU's R&D bureaucracy. The excess financial reporting, auditing and paperwork reflect “a sort of mistrust” of researchers, complained Vlastimil Ružicka, rector of the Institute for Chemical Technology in Prague. “Trust honest people and punish offenders,” he urged the Commissioner.
The outcome of this debate will be closely watched. The preliminary feedback, the Commissioner has said, is mixed. Among the 800-plus formal, written comments that the commission had received by early autumn, many urged action. But many were also leery of Brussels playing a bigger role in R&D coordination; the old political tugof- war between Brussels and the national capitals, seen in trade, agricultural and many other policy areas, is also very much alive in the research world.
The Commission is due to publish concrete proposals at the beginning of 2008. That's fortuitous timing for the Commissioner: it's also when his native Slovenia will be setting the political agenda, holding the rotating presidency of the European Union.