Viewpoint: ‘A renewed approach to scientific culture’ in Europe

04 Jan 2021 | Viewpoint

As Portugual takes the EU helm, science minister Manuel Heitor outlines how EU programmes can boost research careers, promote a greener, fairer Europe, and speed pandemic recovery through a renewed European Research Area

Manuel Heitor

Manuel Heitor, Portuguese minister for science, technology and higher education.

On January 1, Portugal took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, and announced three top priorities: to promote Europe’s recovery from the pandemic, its programmes for social solidarity, and its “strategic autonomy.”

Important for success is a focus on research careers, and on strengthening the European Research Area – a set of policies promoting cooperation and mobility of ideas and researchers across the EU. So argues Manuel Heitor, Portuguese minister for science, technology and higher education, in this essay for Science|Business.

Progress achieved in the development of the European Research Area over the past 20 years has attracted broad support, and now it is time to challenge European citizens and institutions to further enhance and improve it. As part of that, as we launch the next EU R&D programme Horizon Europe, we must reaffirm the target that the EU spend 3% of gross domestic product on R&D by 2030 [up from 2.18% in 2018]. 

It is under this context that the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union will follow the Council “trio” recommendations, the EC communication of September 2020 and the Council conclusions of December 2020. It will focus on three main issues considered crucial for research and innovation, and that respond to the ERA quest for more coordination and that encourage member states to invest in a number of flagship areas under the platforms to be established through the Next Generation EU [pandemic recovery programme] and in articulation with Horizon Europe:

  1. Firstly, the relationship among science, employment and resilience is key to foster the emerging recovery of Europe at large, and requires that every single European region becomes central to this debate. Science and technological knowledge create markets; and populations at large need to be better aware of the non-linear behaviour of research and innovation to create better employment. In this context, synergies between national and European programmes are essential, including with the Next Generation EU recovery fund. The role of national funding agencies and their cooperation with the European Commission is crucial to ensure these synergies. But the role of socially responsible industry and entrepreneurs is also critical for the future of Europe and for the need to better promote and increase the level and scope of business R&D.

  2. Secondly, open and collaborative research needs to be fostered to promote new frontiers of knowledge and overcome all types of borders. Clear examples include cancer research, genetically improved food, the physics of the universe, advanced materials and nanoscience, or quantum physics, among many other disciplines. But, overall, we need to better evolve in the “science of the Anthropocene”. As demonstrated by COVID-19 [thought to have originated in bats] an alarming signal is given by zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, which have been increasing due to the pressure that our societies and their economic development exert on nature (see, for instance, the UN’s Human Development Report). It is a clear manifestation of the unbalanced influence of human beings on Earth, which is also expressed through climate change. 

    The eventual scientific demonstration of these relations with the pandemic with which we now live requires more knowledge to be able to ask more accurate and difficult questions and better understand the risks we run, as well as to guarantee that Europe lead the scientific evolution in this new geological era of the Anthropocene. To that end, new knowledge across disciplines, institutional innovation across public and private institutions, and new observation methods making use of low-orbit satellite systems are needed to better guide our common future. In this respect, it is expected that the role of philanthropy and private foundations is increasingly relevant in Europe and should be carefully articulated with national funding agencies, scientific organisations and the European Commission.

  3. Last but not least, we need to foster research careers and increase the professionalisation of research activity, either in public or private sectors. Europe must improve the conditions to further attract and retain researchers in comparison with other areas of the world. For example, the European Research Council, which has built a unique consensus across the research community in Europe, should continue to be strengthened, promoting recruitment that is better coordinated across countries. Potential future avenues should also guarantee that “multidirectional” and “balanced” brain circulation becomes effective across Europe, far beyond “unidirectional” mobility schemes. This may require a stepwise approach to promote joint recruitment schemes and joint career development across the European Universities programme, as well as across research institutions at large in different EU member states, to foster true European research careers. Again, the role of national funding agencies and their cooperation with the European Commission is crucial to ensure these synergies.

Following the preliminary consultation process conducted during the preparation of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union in October-November 2020, as well as a 15 December 2020 workshop on the research labour market,  it should be clear that the research careers debate must be associated with key policy discussions for Europe. In particular, it can only be effectively addressed in terms of the need to increase the level of public and private investment in R&D throughout all European regions, as explicitly acknowledged in the the EC communication of September 2020 and the Council conclusions of December 2020.

This policy debate should be articulated with related issues across public and private systems, including  the following:

Research careers in business firms:

  • Guarantee that the recently established taxonomy for sustainable financing, as developed in close articulation with the EU New Green Deal, promotes innovative, sustainable and regenerative businesses and entrepreneurial activities, stimulating research careers in business firms, together with an increasing level and scope of business R&D.

Research careers in research and technology organisations (RTOs) and in higher education institutions (HEIs):

  • Focus on young researchers and on improving employment conditions and key employability skills in order to further improve recruitment, rewarding and assessment systems;

  • Improve recruitment, reward and assessment systems towards a better appreciation and valuation of the quality of research beyond purely bibliometric indicators based on journal impact factors, in a way to foster true European practices for recruitment and career development.

  • Promote a renewed “Charter of Conduct” oriented to foster European research career development practices, including clear recommendations for: i) open observation, monitoring and reporting systems across the European Universities programme participants, as well as across research institutions at large throughout different EU member states; ii) improving tenure track systems and strengthening career management; and iii) open science principles, including the guarantee that career development is mainly associated with research publications freely available on journal websites, or through public repositories;

  • Consider recommendations for potential joint recruitment schemes among European Universities and research institutions at large, to guarantee that “multidirectional” and balanced brain circulation becomes effective across Europe and associated with strengthened responsible research careers;

  • European Universities’ alliances should be considered as “testbeds” for interoperability and promotion of cooperation between member states regarding European research career development practices.

On the role of national funding agencies and their cooperation with the EC:

  • Guarantee the implementation of open observation, monitoring and reporting systems across Europe about annual “flows” and “stocks” of researchers, as well as of research career paths at institutional level;

  • Promote the articulation of national programmes with the European Research Council to support recruitment and reward of young researchers, promoting an adequate coordination across countries and faciliating joint recruitment across institutions in different countries;

  • Foster the necessary articulation among national agencies and EC towards a stepwise process leading to a pan European job market for young researchers.

On the role of private foundations to foster research careers:

  • Articulate public action at national and European levels in close cooperation with philanthropy, through private foundations, to stimulate more and better research careers in RTOs and HEIs, particularly to focus on young researchers and to further improve recruitment, reward and assessment systems, as well as promoting European career development practices.

Overall, the sucessful evolution of the European Research Area must consider the necessary practices and frameworks fostering better research careers across business firms,  RTOs and HEIs, together with an increasing level and scope of business and public R&D.

The complexity of these issues, as well as the need to continue promoting the autonomy of research and academic institutions in distintictive national public and private labour frameworks, implies that special priority must be given to the implementation of open observation, monitoring and reporting systems across Europe. We must track the “flows” and “stocks” of researchers, as well as research carreer paths at institutional level. Although related conclusions have already been approved at the level of research ministers in the Competitiveness Council, such observation and reporting systems remain to be implemented. In particular, pilot projects could be tested in the European Universities programme, as well as across research institutions at large in EU member states, to foster European career development practices.

The debate over the last few months is expected to support terms for the establishment of an “ERA Forum for Transition” and a potential “ERA Pact for Research and Innovation”. These will support setting up and implementing strategic priorities for the European Research Area, and strengthening science-society linkages, through a renewed approach to scientific culture in Europe.

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