New ERA to launch at the end of a long summer, says research commissioner

02 Jul 2020 | News

In an interview with Science|Business, Mariya Gabriel gives more details about her main priorities for revitalising the European Research Area and finally delivering on the vision of a single market for research

Maryia Gabriel

Mariya Gabriel. Photo: European Commission.

EU research and innovation commissioner Mariya Gabriel is drawing up plans to push forward with the creation a single market for research and give substance to goals set by the EU 20 years ago when it first came up with the vision for the European Research Area (ERA).

By September, the commissioner intends to publish her plan for revamping ERA, along with proposals for expanding excellence in research and innovation to poorer regions of the EU, and a separate set of objectives for refreshing the European Education Area (EEA).

In parallel, the commissioner is working on final details of Horizon Europe, to ensure it is ready to start on 1 January 2021.

ERA was launched in 2000, but failed to deliver on its priorities because they were always seen as recommendations, not as mandatory goals.

With the notable exception of the establishment of large European research infrastructures, most of the objectives set in 2000 have not been reached.  Member states failed to increase R&D investments to at least 3 per cent of GDP, while the EU has not been able to effectively coordinate national and regional research policies.

Gabriel said the new plan will have a smaller number of priorities, but each will be accompanied by concrete goals. “If we want a revitalised ERA, obviously we will propose new actions,” she said.

When asked for examples, she said ERA performance indicators could be included in the European Semester, a semi-annual grade that the commission gives member states for their compliance with EU laws and targets.  

Her predecessors embarked on ambitious projects, with Máire Geoghegan-Quinn aiming to establish the Innovation Union, while Carlos Moedas’s legacy is the European Innovation Council.

Gabriel is making the merger of east-west, research and education, her leitmotif. She picked ERA and EEA as her big projects, as a reflection of her much broader portfolio, which covers research, innovation, education, culture and youth. The ERA and EEA projects will go hand in hand, but remain separate initiatives.

Gabriel dismissed any idea of merging the two strategies, but said, “For me it is important that from now on ERA and EEA will work together.” The goal is to identify EU programmes that help research and education systems work together across borders.

The innovation gap

The first problem ERA should fix is the ever-growing research and innovation divide between richer member states and countries that joined after 2004. “The research and innovation divide persists,” said Gabriel. As a stark demonstration of that, only 5.5 per cent of Horizon 2020 money has gone to projects submitted from member states that joined the EU after 2004. To fix this, “I intend to propose a true widening strategy as part of the ERA,” Gabriel said.

This should be music to the ears of researchers in member states with lower levels of investments in R&D. But, in richer parts of the EU, proposals for a more level playing field in research and innovation are met with scepticism by proponents of scientific excellence as the main criteria for access to EU research programmes.

“Excellence will always be at the heart of ERA,” said Gabriel. “We have to preserve it but we need to acknowledge the new realities.”

Better synergies

Echoing sentiments often expressed by her predecessor, Gabriel said the EU has to work more on translating research results into innovative services and products. It also needs to coordinate more closely with member states on assessing how R&D funding can be put at the core of national recovery policies and how structural funds can be directed towards science and technology, so that poorly-performing member states and regions can catch up and contribute more to the EU’s post-pandemic recovery.

Gabriel said the EU has safeguarded its scientific and technological excellence thanks to the work of researchers and public and private funders, and more of the same is needed in future. “A true European leadership should be built together,” she said. “Excellence and integration are two sides of the same coin.”

Researchers working in poorer regions and member states should not perceive themselves to be in “inferior positions” and their ideas and talent should be better exploited. “We should offer them the optimal framework, so they choose to work for and with Europe,” said Gabriel.

Member states have the right to route some structural funds towards research projects as a way to attract and keep researchers in their home countries. The commission has been issuing the so-called “seal of excellence”, a stamp of approval that allows researchers to get funding from EU structural funds, if not enough Horizon 2020 funding is available for their projects. 

Under the new budget, from 2021, the commission will allow member states to transfer 5 per cent of their structural funds towards projects that work in synergy with programmes in Horizon Europe, such as the European Innovation Council (EIC) and the European Research Council (ERC).

However, Gabriel said “more clarity” is needed if these synergies are to become operational. Current schemes aimed at achieving better synergies between funding programmes are not mandatory and member states can choose whether to allocate structural funds to EU research projects.

To make further progress in this area, Gabriel is working with her colleague Elisa Ferreira, EU commissioner for cohesion and reforms, to find the right legal framework. “We have agreed with the president of the Committee of the Regions to come up with a common action plan so that regions are included in this process,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel hopes the new ERA plan will incentivise member states to participate in these synergies and for the commission to follow up on progress. “We have seen what the limitations of voluntary mechanisms are,” she said.

No delays on Horizon

Although EU leaders have yet to agree on the EU’s next seven-year budget, an essential ingredient for the timely start of Horizon Europe in January 2021, Gabriel said the commission is not working on a plan B. “It’s not necessary at the moment.”

Gabriel sees “a true momentum” for research and innovation as more and more leaders acknowledge the importance of Horizon Europe for a sustainable recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Negotiations on important chapters of Horizon Europe depend on the budget deal. Once a deal is reached, the European Parliament and the European Council will have to work together on the details for foreign participation in Horizon Europe, which public partnerships will be funded and how research missions will be deployed.

To settle all these questions, “We need to come back to the negotiating table,” said Gabriel. According to her, Horizon Europe will be open for countries associated in Horizon 2020, but the decision on new associated countries should be taken jointly by member states and the parliament.

A boost for European universities

Gabriel also acknowledged that the crisis has severely disrupted the work of universities, as lockdowns forced faculty to teach their courses online, while students were no longer able to travel and mobility under many Erasmus plus grants came to a halt.

Despite the difficulties, universities participating in the newly formed European University Networks reacted quickly and adapted to the new challenges by pooling resources and know how. “They had an extraordinary reaction,” said Gabriel. “We should continue investing in this initiative of European universities.”

Gabriel wants to work with member states to get a more detailed account of how the pandemic has impacted universities across the EU.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up