Member states back role for universities in ERA governance

09 Sep 2021 | News

Universities have mixed feelings about draft plans which give the research community a seat at the table overseeing the implementation of the new single market for research

EU member states want universities and research organisations to be part of the advisory group governing the implementation of the European Research Area (ERA), the EU’s future single market for research, according to the European Council’s latest conclusions on ERA governance.

The advisory group will oversee work on delivering ERA, for example, ensuring member states move towards harmonising their research landscapes and boosting investment in research.

The European University Association is content with the draft plans, but is concerned about execution. “When it comes to the governance we are happy, we were really arguing for full engagement at operational level and also the political level,” said Stephane Berghmans, director of research and innovation at the EUA.

While subject to change, the Council’s conclusions tick many boxes, by including stakeholders in the dialogue and in the co-design of ERA.

But at the same time, Berghmans stressed that governance is only one part of the bigger picture. The real success of ERA depends on member state commitment to boost research funding to 3% of GDP in the next decade. The goal is set, but it’s non-binding. “If member states are not there to commit, I am sure that ERA will not be able to deliver,” said Berghmans.

Meanwhile, some other stakeholders do not see that they will be enabled to have significant influence over ERA.

With six groups invited to the table: universities; research and technology organisations: research intensive companies; individual researchers and innovators; research infrastructures; and funding agencies, the documents says the Commission should ensure "appropriate representation".

Interpreting this as allowing one representative for each group, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, scoffed at the proposal. “Hilarious: 1 representative for 4,000 universities,” he tweeted.

Deketelaere was also critical of potential support for the stakeholders involved with the group.

But with no detailed explanation of what this support would look like, it is difficult to comment at this point, Berghmans believes. While extra support could be a positive sign, “I would argue you don’t need this, because this is exactly what our members are expecting us to do,” he said.

The first ERA plans were drafted in 2000 with the aim of coordinating national R&D policy and research agendas to boost scientific excellence. Back then, member states promised to increase their R&D spending to 3% of GDP, which they have failed to do.

The current Commission revived the plans back in 2020 and now member states are hashing out the details on how the renewed ERA will function. They have once again set themselves a 3% R&D spending goal. The new advisory body is part of the efforts to coordinate action.

Slovenian hopes

The Slovenian presidency of the Council has been vocal about the need to involve universities and research organisations in ERA governance. “If we would like to have a good implementation of the European Research Area, we strongly believe that the inclusion of stakeholders in the early stages of strategic planning, implementation, monitoring and also evaluation is of crucial importance,” said Tomaž Boh, senior adviser at the Slovenian science ministry, speaking at a Science Europe event earlier this week.

Last week, the presidency held a workshop on ERA governance where it invited various research stakeholders to the table. It was clear the Council and the stakeholders shared the same vision, according to Boh.

With the stakeholders round the table, the presidency hopes to develop a governance system that enables efficient resource spending and helps the Commission and member states see eye to eye. “The system should be designed in a way to be able to deliver, to recognise different stakeholders, views, and in a way to be able to translate these expectations into concrete actions and concrete outcomes,” said Boh.

The next big step for the file is the presidency’s conference on 26-27 October, where the focus will fall on research stakeholders, according to the Slovenians.

The final conclusions detailing the terms of overseeing the creation of the ERA are set to be officially adopted by the end of the year under Slovenia’s presidency.

The draft published today, in a welcome exercise of transparency, noted Berghmans, is only the first iteration of the text. “Let’s see how this draft changes,” he said.  “And I hope [the member states] will increase their ambition when it comes to sustainable investment in research and innovation.”

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