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The European Research Area: Evolving concept, implementation challenges

Written by Vincent Reillon,

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In 1972, the Commission proposed the first guidelines for a Community policy on research and innovation with two dimensions: Member State cooperation in tackling common issues, and national research policy coordination. The former dimension was implemented gradually and led to the adoption of the first framework programme for Community research in 1983. To implement the latter dimension, the European Commission proposed the creation of an ‘effective single area for European science’ in 1973.

However, it took almost 30 years, until 2000, for the European Commission to propose the concept of a ‘European Research Area’ (ERA), subsequently endorsed by the European institutions. The ERA concept is based on the idea that a gain in efficiency can be obtained if isolated national research systems become more interoperable, allowing for better flows of knowledge, technology and people among them and creating a more integrated European system for research.

Between 2000 and 2004, the Commission developed the concept, to promote ERA implementation. In 2008, the Council of the European Union became more involved through the launch of the ‘Ljubljana process’, including the definition of a 2020 ERA Vision. In 2012, the European stakeholders – organisations funding and performing research, universities, and similar bodies – were integrated in the process. The Council’s 2015 publication of an ‘ERA Roadmap’ aims to increase Member State participation, as they are expected to implement the necessary reforms to establish the ERA, but are considered to have been the partners least involved to date.

The activities developed at European level under the ERA concept led to more national research system integration, coordination and interoperability in Europe, especially on the issues of research infrastructures, researchers’ careers and mobility, joint programming of research programmes and public-private partnerships.

However, strong barriers to reaching an optimal situation remain. Firstly, the division of research competences between European, national and regional level has not been clearly defined. Secondly, national research system diversity and the gap between the leading regions in research and innovation and those lagging behind induce tensions in the distribution of resources and on setting the right balance between competition and cooperation. Moreover, the application of the principle of using cooperation tools to foster national research policy coordination has added complexity and brought about fragmentation of the framework programme for research.

The use of legislation to enforce ERA implementation, a possibility offered by the Lisbon Treaty since 2009, has so far met strong opposition from the Council. This option is also complicated, given that neither the European research system that would emerge from the application of the ERA concept, nor the path that should be taken to reach this situation, have yet been agreed between the European institutions, the Member States and the stakeholders. The future of ERA implies intensified discussions between all these players to design a coherent European research system, to define its structure and its governance, and to agree on common objectives.

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