Year LI, 2009, Single Issue, Page 51

 

 

EUROPE AND RESEARCH
 
 
To understand how research works in Europe, one first needs to appreciate that whereas the nation-states are firmly in control of the funding and orienting of basic and applied research, and of support for research and industrial development, the European Commission’s involvement in research is limited to the promotion of a few major common European projects, almost exclusively in the field of applied research. In the USA, which is our main competitor, the situation is quite the reverse: over the past decade the states of the US federation have invested only 1.9 per cent of their GDP in research, against the 2.6 per cent invested by the federal government.
The main framework of reference for research policies in Europe, both at continental level and at individual state level, is the Lisbon Strategy, a project adopted by the European Council and managed by the European Commission.[1]
The Lisbon Strategy project stemmed from the realisation at the start of the 1990s that two phenomena of vast proportions had begun to revolutionise the global economy and daily life throughout the world, Europe included: one was the emergence of globalisation, bringing constantly increasing interdependence of the world’s economies, and the other was the technological revolution, characterised by the birth and spread of Internet and of new information and communication technologies. The EU leaders, aware of the key role played by technological innovation in economic and social development, realised the considerable risks their countries were running in the face of the increasingly fierce international competition in this sector. Thus, meeting in Lisbon in March 2000, the European Council set the EU a new and ambitious objective: to become, by 2010, “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” To pursue this objective, the European Council adopted a detailed and far-reaching strategy. Indeed, the Lisbon Strategy makes provision for intervention in a number of sectors, namely scientific research, education, professional training, access to Internet and e-commerce, and reforms of social security systems. The strategy’s objectives include increasing the level of investment in higher education in Europe, to make it equal to that recorded in the US (i.e. taking it from just 1.3 per cent to 3.3 per cent of the GDP), and the creation of a European space for research and innovation.[2]
Now, with the 2010 deadline upon us, it appears certain that the closing summit, should there be one, will be forced to remark that not one of the objectives set has been achieved. On the contrary, over the past ten years, Europe’s economy and European society have felt very keenly the negative effects of globalisation, and the current financial and economic crisis is threatening to put paid to the unrealistic ambitions of the European heads of state once and for all.
 
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The Lisbon Strategy is built around the so-called multiannual framework programmes that, since 1984, have been the instruments used by the European Commission to establish and carry forward its policies in the field of technological development and applied research.
The one currently in progress is the Seventh Framework Programme[3] whose main aims are to increase the proportion of the annual EU budget spent on research, and to provide incentives for national and private investments in research.
It has four main objectives which are reflected in four specific programmes. These programmes provide the foundation on which European activities in the research sector are structured.
The Ideas programme aims to boost cutting-edge research in Europe, i.e. to encourage new discoveries capable of changing fundamentally our view of the world and our whole way of life. This programme is led by a scientific council which, working independently, is responsible for establishing the programme’s priorities and scientific strategies.
Under the People programme, considerable financial resources are set aside with the dual aim of increasing mobility and career opportunities for European researchers and of enticing more excellent young researchers to Europe.
The Capacities programme, on the other hand, highlights the need to invest in research infrastructures so as to provide researchers with effective instruments for increasing the quality and competitiveness of European research. It covers, for example, plans to invest more in less efficient regions, in the creation of regional research centres, and in research designed to benefit small and medium-size enterprises.
The main programme, however, is Cooperation, which is geared at strengthening links between industry and research in a transnational framework. Its aim is to build and establish Europe’s leadership in the research areas that the European Commission considers most important, that is, health; food, agriculture and biotechnology; information and communication technologies; nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies; energy; the environment (including climate change); transport (including aeronautics); socioeconomic sciences and the humanities; security and space research.
 The EU budget allocation for the Seventh Framework Programme amounts to over 50 billion euros, which corresponds to an average of seven billion euros a year, and more than half of this is absorbed by the Cooperation projects.
The European Commission is also able to direct technological innovation in Europe through the European Technology Platforms (ETPs),[4] European initiatives that encourage the industrial and academic research communities, the financial world and the institutions to pool their resources and define common research agendas in specific technological fields, in order to establish a position of global leadership for the EU.
There are currently 28 ETPs in operation, focusing on a range of sectors, including nanomedicine, sustainable chemistry, European road transport and urban mobility, global animal health, the electricity networks of the future, nanoelectronics, integrated information systems, manufacturing, the water supply and sanitation, the forest-based sector, “plants for the future”, building, textiles and clothing, steel, photovoltaic energy, small and medium-size enterprises and high technology.
In truth, as well as being promoted at European level, the ETPs have also been developed considerably within the single states and this has given rise to problems of overlapping between, and thus coordination of, the initiatives mounted, respectively, by the states and by the EU. To give an idea of the general climate of confusion surrounding these initiatives, I would like to quote two paragraphs from a document published by the Italian industrialists’ association Confindustria: “A very important issue is the definition of national positions on the ETPs, with a view to promoting and supporting some ETPs, but not others, so as to give priority to those of greater strategic importance for the nation… In mid-2004, the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research launched a bid to create and support technological platforms in Italy, the aim being to build national equivalents of some of the programmes promoted by the Commission.”[5]
The main weakness of the European Commission’s research policies, however, is still the lack of attention paid to basic research.[6] The funding the Commission provides, through the framework programmes, is channelled almost entirely into applied research, with the aim of achieving practical objectives in the short and medium term, with scant consideration for the fact that applied research is, itself, driven by advancing knowledge and innovations produced in the sphere of basic research.
It should also be remembered that for some cutting-edge disciplines, like immunology and biotechnology, it is impossible to draw a clear distinction between basic and applied research. Indeed, in the US new discoveries in these fields are often translated into practical applications that are then exploited through academic-industrial collaborations.
Thus, Europe needs to build on its heritage of basic research, but at the same time to promote the transformation of this patrimony into technological innovation, the area where Europe is most wanting. Indeed, without basic research and effective operational instruments in the field of research policy, the idea of creating a knowledge-based Europe is quite inconceivable.
As a result of the present situation, Europe is falling behind its international competitors, both old and new, to a worrying degree. Statistics clearly show that scientists elsewhere are losing interest in moving to Europe, while Europe is having increasing difficulty holding on to the researchers it already has. The glaring drop in the number of Nobel prizes awarded to Europeans is, more than anything, symptomatic of this trend. The EU has more individuals graduating in scientific disciplines and in engineering than either the US or Japan, yet it fails to offer these graduates adequate career openings. Ireland, for example, often quoted as an example of a country successful in the field of research and innovation, is the European state most affected by the “brain drain”, losing one in four of its scientists and intellectuals.[7]
Indeed, in today’s research scenario, now global, Europe’s problem is not so much its exporting of skills (which could actually be interpreted as recognition of the quality of its education system) as its failure to attract skills from abroad. Sadly, in a survey of 15,000 European researchers awarded PhDs in the US in 2001, around 11,000 declared that they had no intention of returning to Europe.
Furthermore, reports published by the European Commission show, systematically, that the innovation gap between the US and Europe is continuing to grow. It is, in short, unrealistic to imagine that Europe, with the instruments it currently has, can compete in this field with the US, Japan and Asian giants like India and China.
Nowadays, only large states have the wherewithal to organise effective scientific and technological research, a fact clearly highlighted in an article by Alberto Mantovani, researcher at the Mario Negri Institute in Milan and at the University of Milan: “Let us try and imagine a United States in which there are no agencies and no basic research policy at federal level, a United States in which Kansas and Ohio, or California even, establish independently their own priorities, working out and managing their own research systems. Or a United States without the National Institutes of Health, which is the main federal body involved in the distribution of funds in the biomedical field and the basis of America’s scientific and economic supremacy in the biotechnology field.
“Research, more and more, demands critical mass and investments on a continental scale. Conversely, the European research sphere, inadequate and suffocating, emerges as fragmented and positively Lilliputian when compared with that of our competitors. Indeed, the current framework programmes focus on extremely specific and narrow topics, determined in accordance with a kind of top-down logic, in which decisions on the areas of interest come from above. Instead, the support given to basic research should be structured differently: the working programmes and scientific priorities of basic research need to be much broader than those of applied research. Furthermore, the European Commission has less funds at its disposal than the National Institutes of Health in the US.”[8]
In the light of these shortcomings of basic research in Europe, it is also possible to explain the so-called technological paradox that characterises research activity in European countries. While basic research in Europe has lost ground in the sectors of highest strategic importance, such as genetics and nanotechnologies, in which continental-level programmes and funding are essential, it retains its groundbreaking status in many other sectors, those in which the states are still able to provide the necessary resources. Conversely, Europe’s failure to exploit the results of its basic research, above all when compared with the US, is generalised. For example, European researchers publish just as much as their American counterparts do, but lag far behind them in terms of numbers of inventions, patents, licence agreements and spin-offs. The fundamental problem afflicting research in Europe is the growing gap between the production of scientific knowledge and the capacity to transform this knowledge into technological innovation able to sustain the growth and development of the economies and societies of the European nations.
Europe needs a network of research centres, funders and businesses, in short a proper system (like that existing in the US) that, favouring the transformation of scientific research into new products and services, has the potential to bring about the creation of new industries, to attract new researchers, and to improve the global standing of European firms.
The lack of success enjoyed by the Lisbon Strategy is due not so much to political choices or an unwillingness on the part of the European institutions and national governments as to the structural shortcomings that underlie the poor organisation of research in Europe.
The Lisbon Strategy provides the umpteenth example of how cooperation among European states, far from guaranteeing achievement of the objectives set, is the root problem determining Europe’s inefficiency and lack of credibility.
Indeed, as shown by political science and its collective action theory, the mere existence of potential positive effects is not enough to guarantee cooperative behaviour. In the course of the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy we have seen how single member states can benefit by deviating from the strategy pursued by all the other states, a phenomenon referred to as “the tragedy of the commons.” It is, indeed, in the interests of a single state to delay the implementation of decisions reached collectively in order to try and exploit the initiatives set up by the others without sustaining the relative costs.[9]
 
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For some time now, the European Commission has been working on the idea of creating a European Research Council along the lines of the agencies that support basic research in America. However, the European Commission — as well as the scientific community that supports this initiative — still has to show public opinion in Europe exactly how it might succeed in changing the course of research in Europe. The excerpt from Mantovani’s article, quoted earlier, which compares the different settings in which scientists in Europe and in the US work, highlights the link between the vitality of scientific research and the size of the framework in which this research is organised. The article stops there, however, failing to move on to the next, and fundamental, issue: the presence in America — and the absence in Europe — of a federal state able to gather, autonomously, the resources needed to fund research at continental level, and to harness the support of research organisations, banks and businesses for major projects of common interest — a state which, as regards the results obtained, is answerable to the citizens, and free from national influences.
However, even recognition, at political and institutional level, of the importance of science, the availability of more funds for research and more rational use of research funds through the creation of an independent agency would not be enough to guarantee that these funds were well spent. A European Research Council brought into being by the European Council would inevitably have the same “genetic makeup” as the other European institutions, which are proving incapable of stopping the decline of the European states. Initiatives like the European Research Council project can slow down the crisis of scientific and technological research in Europe, but they cannot remove its root cause.
 
Laura Filippi


[1] European Commission, “Facing the challenge. The Lisbon strategy for growth and employment” (the Kok report), Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2004.
[2] “Building the ERA of knowledge for growth”, Communication from the Commission, Brussels, 6.4.2005.
[3] “Decision No 1982/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Community for research, technological development and demonstration activities (2007-2013)”, Official Journal of the European Union, L 412/1 dated 30.12.2006.
[4] European Commission, “Technology Platforms – From Definition to Implementation of a Common Research Agenda”, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2004.
[5] “Position paper su Piattaforme Tecnologiche europee e nazionali”, Confindustria, 10-05-2007.
[6] “Science and technology, the key to Europe’s future – Guidelines for future European Union policy to support research”, Communication from the Commission, Brussels, 16.6.2004.
[7] “Annuario scienza e società”, edizioni il Mulino, Bologna, 2009.
[8] “Per un European Research Council”, Alberto Mantovani, Darwin Issue no. 5 – Year 2 - I/II 2005.
[9] “Per una nuova strategia di Lisbona”, Stefan Collignon, Italianieuropei, 02/2005.

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