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How will EURAB be reincarnated?

The European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) is nearing the end of its second term, with its last plenary meeting in taking place in June. In an interview with CORDIS News, Horst Soboll, chair of EURAB, talks candidly about the unique qualities of the advisory body, its influe...

The European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) is nearing the end of its second term, with its last plenary meeting in taking place in June. In an interview with CORDIS News, Horst Soboll, chair of EURAB, talks candidly about the unique qualities of the advisory body, its influence on European research policy and its future orientation. Created in 2001 by the European Commission, EURAB is made up of 45 experts from across the EU and beyond, who advise the Commission on design and implementation of research and technological development policy within the European Research Area (ERA). Since its inception, the advisory body has issued some 30 opinions and reports containing recommendations on a broad range of research policy issues. These include, among other topics, the Descartes Prize; Lisbon Strategy; European Research Council (ERC); open access; structural and regional funding of research; the budget of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7); and the European Institute of Technology (EIT). While some of the reports were requested by the Commission, EURAB is also free to initiate discussions on issues that concern its members, or issues which are felt to be timely. In many ways, the high-level advisory body is the first of its kind, bringing together members from academia and industry to provide collective advice on research policy. Before, the Commission relied on the advice of a similar committee, but in which industry and academia worked separately on recommendations. According to Dr Soboll, the manner in which its predecessor operated had created a climate of distrust between the two communities, and ultimately it was therefore ineffective. This is something that EURAB sought to put right. 'The success of EURAB is not the two dozen reports and interesting recommendations it has issued. They are just the tip of the iceberg,' says Dr Soboll. 'The most beneficial outcome has been the establishment of a trustful atmosphere among such a range of personalities from business and academia.' That is not to say that members are always in agreement with one another, but differences of opinions help create a lively debate and do not hinder the discussions, says Dr Soboll. Following the end of the advisory body's first mandate in 2004, half of its members were re-elected, while half were replaced. Dr Soboll believes that adding 'new blood' to the group is very important in order to ensure that new perspectives are explored. Thanks to the ease of relations between members, as well as good contacts with the European Commission's Research Directorate General and Research Commissioner's cabinet, the advisory body has been able to pass on its advice more effectively, Dr Soboll believes. In addition to the publication of its official documents and scheduled plenaries, the body conducts informal meetings with stakeholders and the Commission in order to provide more substance on a given topic. 'In such informal discussions, we are able to pass on more information than in the reports; what's between the lines, different opinions, ideas which were too courageous, too ambitions, too crazy to include,' says Dr Soboll. EURAB is not only a source of sound advice; it also acts as a fast-track in the stakeholder consultation process. Its members comprise the presidents and chairs of nearly all of the most important research-orientated councils, academies, committees, business organisations in Europe - they are nominated by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and BUSINESSEUROPE, a grouping of EU industries. 'The Commission knows that if you ask each committee in this 'comitology' here in Brussels and across Europe about an issue, its takes a long time and you end up with so many opinions; asking EURAB, at least you know you can speed up this process,' says Dr Soboll. There is no doubting the success of EURAB in convening a diverse array of stakeholders on important and pressing issues, but how influential has it been in guiding European research policy? According to Dr Soboll, the advisory body has been very instrumental in 'influencing the mindset without being in the limelight'. He referred to the first of two opinions on the EIT, in which EURAB expressed deep reservations about, among other aspects, the top-down nature of the EIT idea that concentrated its efforts on 'bricks and mortar' more than content. Following the opinion, the Commission published two further communications on the EIT, the content of which showed that 'the Commission had really absorbed the criticism from EURAB and others', believes Dr Soboll. Other topics where EURAB provided significant input were the ERC and open access. Discussions are now underway at the Commission on the future orientation of the advisory board. In the recently published Green Paper on the ERA, the Commission said that it intended to 'reform the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) in order to enhance the role it plays in the realisation of a European Research Area.' While details of this reform have yet to be disclosed, Dr Soboll believes that the Commission will want to make use of the experience gained so far by the advisory body in order to improve the way it works and move it in a new direction. One possibility would be establishing a new committee similar to EURAB, combining industry and academia, but with a nomination process similar to that of the ERC's Scientific Council and a much smaller membership. Creating a smaller committee would cut the time it takes to find high-profile members who have the right expertise and who are also available, enabling the body to react more quickly to actual developments in research policy. In terms of priorities, Dr Soboll thinks that next incarnation of EURAB would more than likely focus on issues such as the future development of the ERA, particularly within a global context, the open method of research coordination, strengthening the knowledge triangle and raising awareness of these issues in the public and political arena. But until the Commission's decision on EURAB's future is divulged, it will be business as usual, says Dr Soboll. Although no meetings are planned following its final plenary meeting on 22 June, the advisory body will be busy writing its final report, while discussions are foreseen on the Commission's Green Paper on ERA for July.