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Together since 1957: the rise of research in the EU policy agenda

The EU has always supported scientific research. Indeed, the Union's involvement in research began with the Atomic Energy Community Treaty, which first conceived the idea of 'European research' and provided for the establishment of the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Over the ...
Together since 1957: the rise of research in the EU policy agenda
The EU has always supported scientific research. Indeed, the Union's involvement in research began with the Atomic Energy Community Treaty, which first conceived the idea of 'European research' and provided for the establishment of the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Over the years research has continued to present, but never truly at the forefront. Until now, that is. The last five years have seen a meteoric rise in the profile awarded to European research, to the extent that successive EU presidencies are now including it in their priorities. Speeches by Heads of State and Government on the new global challenges facing Europe are also now peppered with allusions to attaining competitiveness through research, innovation and knowledge.

Of course this change in perceptions of research has accompanied many other transformations over the past 50 years.

When the European Economic Community (EEC) was first established in 1957, the main focus was, as the name suggests, economic. The six founding members - Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - were intent on establishing an internal market between them. Other countries saw the benefits of economic cooperation, and over the years, membership has grown to include 27 countries. Now most countries in Europe are members. Over time, the EU also came to embody so much more than economic cooperation, with the body's activities extending to domains such as education, health, the environment, and even security and defence. Many policy areas do however remain outside of the EU's sphere of competence.

While the JRC opened its doors in 1958, it was a while before any further moves were made towards a European research policy. In 1967 a Directorate-General for Science, Research and Development was established. The first research programmes were put in place, and the first calls for proposals, addressing various industrial sectors, were published.

The next step forward was thanks to Étienne Davignon, former Vice-President of the European Commission, who pushed for the establishment of a European Strategic Programme for Research and Development in Information Technology (ESPRIT). The programme was approved in 1983, and brought together major manufacturers, small companies, universities and research institutes around 'pre-competitive' research projects. A pilot scheme of 38 projects got underway in 1983, and Europe's research community has since never looked back.

With the fully-fledged ESPRIT programme came other research initiatives, such as RACE (advanced communications technologies), BRITE/EURAM (industrial technologies and advanced materials) and BAP (biotechnology).

In 1985, the EC became a founding member of EUREKA, a network for European market-oriented industrial R&D. Today, discussions are ongoing about strengthening ties between the EU's research framework programmes and EUREKA.

The first major revision of the Treaty establishing the EEC came in 1986, and was known as the Single European Act (SEA). For the first time a new and explicit basis for a European R&D policy was given, and multi-annual framework programmes received their first mention. The European Parliament saw its powers increased, and was for the first time granted co-decision on research programmes. The Parliament's powers were further strengthened in 1997 with the signature of the Amsterdam Treaty. From this point, unanimity within the Council was no longer required for decisions on the framework programmes.

Meanwhile, the budget for the framework programmes was increasing progressively. It moved from €13.215 billion for the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4) to €14.960 billion (FP5) and then €19.113 billion (FP6). A major discussion on the importance of research to European competitiveness took place during FP6, resulting in a funding leap to €53.272 billion or the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which will run for seven years, while previous programmes had a duration of four years. With every discussion of a new framework programme, the Commission and the Parliament have pushed for more money than the Council would sign up to. The Commission had originally asked for €70 billion for FP7, but the 40% increase was nonetheless regarded as a victory for European research and a sign of the extent to which its value is now acknowledged by politicians around Europe.

With the turn of the century, discussions on boosting European research took on a new urgency as globalisation and emerging economies were increasingly cited as threats to European competitiveness.

The new drive to keep Europe at the top began with the launch of the Lisbon Strategy in 2000, which aimed to make Europe's economy the most competitive in the world by 2010. The strategy was intended to prepare the ground for the transition of Europe's economy to one that is competitive, dynamic and knowledge-based. Other provisions within the strategy document ensured that economic progress did not come at the expense of the European social model or the environment.

Suddenly the buzzword 'knowledge economy' was everywhere, and has since been joined by others, such as the 'knowledge triangle' (research, education and innovation), the European Research Area (ERA).

The concept of the ERA was launched by then Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin in 2000. He argued forcefully against the fragmentation of research around Europe, and called on researchers from all sectors to work together more closely.

A further Council meeting in 2002 saw the EU's Heads of State and Government signing up to the goal of increasing European research spending to 3% of GDP by 2010. The goal is still a long way off (the current figure is 1.93%, compared to 2.6% in the US and 3.2% in Japan), but it did focus minds on investment. With the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria, the figure stood at 1.84% of GDP in 2005.

'The results are worrying: they do not match the political commitment of 2002. In fact most figures show that Europe is becoming less attractive for private R&D investment,' wrote Mr Potocnik in the preface to the 2005 edition of the Commission's Key Figures on research. Meanwhile, China is increasing its investment in research by 20% annually.

The launch of FP6 in 2002 saw a bloc of countries with EU candidate status participating in programme on an equal basis with the EU Member States, meaning that EU enlargement happened in research two years before it reached other policy areas.

Enlargement proper then followed in May 2004. This was the EU's fifth enlargement, and increased the number of EU citizens to 490 million.

Once FP6 was up and running, all eyes turned to FP7 as it became clear that the Commission was planning its most ambitious research programme yet. Not only was the Commission hoping to secure a budget twice the size of that of FP6, but the priority was moving firmly away from integration and towards excellence and competitiveness.

The debate over FP7 took place in the shadow of warnings about the threat of globalisation and emerging economies, predominantly in Asia.

When finally adopted, FP7 brought with it new instruments. These range from the European Research Council (ERC), which will for the first time fund frontier research, evaluating proposals solely on the basis of excellence, to Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) - new public-private partnerships given legal entity status.

With FP7 in full swing, Mr Potocnik has now turned his attention once again to the ERA. In April he launched a Green Paper, with the ambition of making knowledge a fifth Community freedom (along with goods, services, capital and labour). Fragmentation still exists, and is hampering Europe's development, according to the architects of this new approach.

'We have a choice in the EU. We can respect the boundaries of knowledge - or we push them. And we can continue treating research as an 'extra' activity - or we can make it the central activity that it deserves,' said Mr Potocnik recently.

So while research has clawed its way up the EU agenda over the last 50 years, some at least still believe that it has not yet reached its rightful position at the forefront of the EU policy programme. With pressure from emerging economies mounting, it is now surely only a matter of time.

Source: European Commission; information sources

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