Gabriel announces new panel to advise on ERA shake-up

04 Feb 2021 | News

European Commission calls in experts to help revamp the 20-year-old plan to coordinate national R&D policies and create a single market for research

Mariya Gabriel

Mariya Gabriel, EU commissioner for research and innovation. Photo: EU Commission.

The European Commission has set up an expert group to design the governance structure for the European Research Area (ERA), the EU’s planned single market for research.

The European Research Area Forum for Transition, “is focusing on designing the new ERA governance and tries to translate it into a simple message,” said Mariya Gabriel, EU commissioner for research and innovation.

Gabriel announced the launch of the new forum at a joint press conference with Portuguese science minister Manuel Heitor, following an informal online meeting of EU science ministers on Wednesday. However, the Commission has not made available further details about the membership of the group.

Gabriel said the group will also help draft a pact for research and innovation the Commission is drawing up in a bid to convince member states to increase public R&D spending from the current average of 0.81% of GDP, to 1.25%. This will set them on the way to investing 3% of GDP on R&D, the target set 20 years ago when ERA was first conceived.

The target is not mandatory, and critics say it will be very difficult to achieve at a time when governments are trying to counter the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic through budget cuts.  

ERA is intended to coordinate national R&D policy and research agendas to avoid duplication and boost scientific excellence. It has long been criticised for failing to deliver because its priorities were set out as recommendations, not as mandatory goals.

Most of the objectives set in 2000 when the plan was launched, have not been reached. Member states failed to increase R&D spending to 3% GDP and the EU is nowhere near effectively coordinating national and regional research policies.

Restructuring the 20-year-old ERA plan was at the top of Gabriel’s priority list when she took on the role of research commissioner in late 2019. “We would like really to be more effective together, strongly aligning our research policies and programmes,” she said.

Improving EU research careers

To achieve the goals set by Gabriel for the new ERA, research ministers say member states and the Commission need to know more about researcher career progression in Europe and what makes some of them leave to work in North America or Asia.

Ministers discussed research careers with Commission representatives, the president of the European Research Council and policy experts from the OECD, and agreed member states should collect more data about the stock of researchers and their mobility patterns within and outside Europe.

Heitor said ministers could agree on a plan to survey research careers and mobility in the EU as early as May. “We hope to reach conclusions as to the policies which we need to adopt in Europe, which will improve and strengthen careers in research,” he said.

The Commission and national agencies could work together to collect information on researcher recruitment and mobility, and career development patterns. “It's very important to invest in people and train people if we're to strengthen research,” said Heitor.

The plan would be a first step towards a joint strategy to stop brain drain and convert it into brain circulation, to ensure that poorer countries in the EU are not depleted of their human capital. “We foresee the development of a European competence framework and a taxonomy of researchers skills, to have a clearer idea of the trends in the research labour market skills and talent,” said Gabriel.

Research ministers will also begin talks on a new code of conduct for the recruitment of researchers. “We hope that over the next few months, perhaps in the space of a year we can put together a fresh charter of conduct for the recruitment of researchers in Europe,” said Heitor.

If successfully implemented, the new ERA would also include measures to incentivise researchers to pursue careers outside academia.

German and Spanish research ministers are putting more weight behind a push to encourage a smoother transfer of research careers from universities to the private sector.

Smoother transitions from academia to industry would foster excellence within the ERA by ensuring “attractive career pathways for excellent researchers and to enable businesses to benefit from highly qualified employees,” said Thomas Rachel, state secretary to Germany’s federal research minister.

Spain’s research minister, Pedro Duque called for specific EU programmes that would help include research staff into companies, and for academia to recognise research activity carried out in the private sector.

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