28 Mar 2017   |   News

As the EU celebrates reaching 60, research seen as central to its future

EU leaders stressed the importance of technology and innovation in a birthday declaration signed in Rome. Now there is optimistic talk of €100B for the next Framework programme, but Brexit could be a dampener

The timing of the EU’s 60th anniversary, just four days before the UK officially sends notice it is leaving, seemed wretched.

And Brexit aside, Europe faces a barrage of other problems: a hostile Russia; an isolationist White House; the continuing flow of migrants across the Mediterranean; and the still-unsustainable Greek debt. Five stages of grief? EU officials will recognise them well.

Yet despite the dispiriting times, national leaders, standing in the room where the Treaty of Rome was signed on March 25, 1957, somehow managed a new message: it is time to get off the floor.

The 27 heads of state summoned optimism in a symbolic declaration that pledged to embrace the transformation of digital technology, open up new avenues for innovation, promote economic growth and step up joint investment in defence.

While not a radical blueprint for the future, the declaration is a reminder of the achievements of the EU and underlined that some self-confidence is quietly returning in Brussels.

“A combination of Brexit and Trump has threatened the EU, but also every action gets reaction,” said Mike Galsworthy, founder of the pressure group Scientists for EU. “It's been a shot in the arm for a sense of common purpose and awoken a sleeping giant, philosophically. Things that were lazily taken for granted are not anymore,” he said.

A glance out the window shows some blue sky

Pro-EU rallies popped up in the streets of London, Berlin and Rome, with European flags to the fore, helping re-kindle a "bottom-up" feel to the European identity and purpose. Searching for something to celebrate, the EU found the ideal candidate. The European Research Council (ERC) marked its own birthday last week – ten years of what seemingly everyone agrees has been a rare EU-instigated success story.

Some are beginning to talk about a new sense of purpose for the EU, at a time when the US appears to be stepping back from its global leadership role, in science as much as in foreign policy.

Influential figures in Brussels research, including MEPs Jerzy Buzek and Christian Ehler, have begun talking about a new budget milestone of €100 billion for the next Framework R&D Programme. While it is far too soon to start throwing around figures, the marker gives something to aspire to.

Business leaders positive on EU innovation, quality of research labs, scientists and engineers (Source: European Investment Bank and World Economic Forum 2017)

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas has lately taken to exhorting everyone he meets to “shout louder about research”. The Commissioner, perhaps searching for some of the dynamism that gave birth to the EU in 1957, or just worried about the prospect of the EU’s failure, is proposing to shake things up with the European Innovation Council (EIC).

“We have to go after the crazy ideas,” Moedas told a meeting at the European Parliament on Monday. “We have to capture the ones that are different and disruptive.”

The detail remains fuzzy, but it is understood that the EIC will take a venture-capital style approach to backing new projects.

Moedas is seeking a mandate to take more risks with taxpayer money and wants the next research programme to make a break with the past. Today’s way of picking winners is losing its relevance and failing to unearth major breakthroughs. “[The EU research programme] has to be simpler, it’s still very bureaucratic. The programme is super prescriptive; it is about telling people what to do,” he said.


Belying the rosy rhetoric: share of innovative firms to total firms in Europe (Source: European Investment Bank and World Economic Forum 2017)

While the Commissioner has big plans to pull up the carpets, he recognises that success is far from guaranteed.

National politicians are still apt to under-value and under-spend on research, meaning wealthy members of the EU must carry on subsidising the poorer countries.

The vision of a frictionless European Research Area has fallen behind reality, science groups have pointed out, and is less and less talked about now in the EU capital.   

Past budget gains in Brussels could quickly be erased if disenchantment with the EU tilts upcoming elections in France and Germany – and possibly Italy – in favour of populist nationalist parties.

A poor result in Germany in September in particular would see Commission officials lose what they privately call their most powerful advocate for research, Angela Merkel, Chancellor, but also a scientist.

Then there is the not-small matter of Brexit. If, after the lengthy exit discussions, the UK is ruled out of future EU research programmes, it will be a bad outcome for everyone.

The disruption to EU science of the loss of the EU’s second-largest net contributor to the budget is hard to underestimate. “Without a good deal on Brexit, the €100 billion deal is pure magical thinking,” one Commission official said.

In addition, the EU’s new, slightly-anxious embrace of shared defence research risks alienating many scientists, with multi-billion euro plans being drawn up that will provide stiff competition to other research priorities.

“Military research is anathema to universities in many ways,” Lisandro Benedetti Cecchi, vice rector for European and international research with the University of Pisa, told Science|Business recently. “We are about creating intelligent people who would take all the necessary steps to avoid going to war.”

If EU-funded science is to keep on thriving in the future, voters weary of EU institutions will need to understand and appreciate its fruits.

Whatever way EU officials dress up the achievements of EU science, emotional attachment is lacking, believes Moedas. “Ordinary Europeans” need to have their minds blown with stories, such as how EU-funded research recently paved the way to the discovery of seven new Earth-like planets, he said.

The case for research needs to be heard more widely than before. “You have to shout to your neighbours – go door-to-door – and tell your friends over dinner about what the EU is doing,” said Moedas. “It’s not what we can do for you, it’s also what you can do for us.”

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