29 Apr 2008   |   News

National governments ‘lukewarm’ on ERA

The responses to the Green Paper on creating a single European Research Area raise the spectre of more red tape and reduced competition.

Commissioner Potočnik: fragmentation a “structural weakness”.

The European Commission is having trouble persuading national governments to match its enthusiasm for a single European Research Area, according to responses to its green paper consultation issued at the end of last week.

Private science and technology companies also appeared wary of some of the more ambitious ideas, however, there was general support for improved cooperation and coordination of national research activity at a European level.

If the Commission had its way it would begin working on a raft of new legislative proposals designed to bind national research efforts at a European Union level. These would include laws encouraging the mobility of researchers throughout the EU, creating a legal framework for pan-European research infrastructure, as well as for joint research

It argues that the economies of scale gained from working together at EU level will result in greater achievements and would allow the EU to compete better with other parts of the world in terms of innovation.

Underwhelmed by the vision

But many member states, including some of the largest countries in the EU, are underwhelmed by the Commission’s vision of a European Research Area enshrined in law.

“We don't support the drafting of new legislation but prefer to use other ways to cooperate,” said a British diplomat on condition of anonymity. “We support the open method of coordination outlined in the Lisbon agenda. This means sharing best practice experience between EU member states and collaborating more with other countries,” she said.

The UK, like many other countries, “values the benefits that could be gained from having competition between member states”, the diplomat said, adding that this is the best way to achieve excellence in research.

But according to Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik, a fragmented research map of Europe amounts to a "structural weakness.” Such weaknesses “prevent Europe from exploiting the full potential of its overall research capability and require further action either at national or European levels, or both. We must sustain our efforts to realise the European Research Area [ERA],” he said.

Mobility, please, but no EU-wide rules

Private companies have other fears, which can be summed up in two short words: red tape. Respondents to the Commission’s consultation from the private sector were in favour of greater researcher mobility, for example, but a large majority were strongly opposed to EU-wide rules to that effect, preferring a voluntary code instead.

While public debate about the ERA continues, the Commission is pursuing five specific initiatives in any event. Earlier this month it published a recommendation on the management of intellectual property by public research organisations. In the coming months it will issue a similar document designed to encourage the promotion of mobility and careers of Europe’s researchers, one concerning the legal framework for pan-European research infrastructures, another about joint programming at an EU level and finally, a recommendation on international science and technology cooperation with countries outside of the EU.

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