Members' Research Service By / May 19, 2016

The European Research Area in a nutshell

Written by VIncent Reillon, Thomas Zandstra and Christian Salm, The European Research Area (ERA) concept has shaped common European policy on…

© wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Written by VIncent Reillon, Thomas Zandstra and Christian Salm,

Researchers in a laboratory
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

The European Research Area (ERA) concept has shaped common European policy on research since 2000. However, despite positive developments in creating an integrated research area in Europe with 28 different research systems working together, the implementation of the ERA still faces challenges. Over 40 years after the first steps were taken to establish a common policy in research, ERA remains a work in progress, as both a complex concept to define and a challenging one to implement

The European Research Area concept was introduced in 2000, to address the fragmentation of national research systems and the lack of coordination between national policies in research. The idea of establishing an ‘internal single market for research’, in which knowledge, researchers and technologies could move freely was widely accepted by Member States, stakeholders and EU institutions alike. ERA focuses on six priorities: effective national research systems; optimal transnational cooperation and competition including research infrastructures; an open labour market for researchers; gender equality and mainstreaming in research; optimal circulation and transfer of scientific knowledge; and international cooperation.

See the ‘Cost of Non-Europe report on European Research Area, and
and in-depth analysis on ‘The European Research Area: Evolving concept, implementation challenges‘.

Challenges in implementing the ERA concept

The first challenge in implementing ERA is linked to the fact that research is a shared competence between the EU and the Member States, with 85% of public funding for research still managed at national level. At EU level, the tools developed to support the implementation of ERA priorities are often voluntary measures. However, in the long term, it can be demonstrated that these soft tools do manage to trigger development.

Efficient monitoring of progress on ERA priorities is a further challenge. Objectives need to be clearly defined, robust indicators have to be designed and comparable data need to be gathered from all 28 Member States. Progress has been made on this aspect in recent years, thanks to continuous dialogue between the European Commission, the Member States and stakeholders. Moreover, even if the ERA priorities have remained stable over the last 15 years, the policy framework for research is evolving. A new challenge for the ERA policy is the emergence of the concept of ‘Open Science’, as the former, already interlinked priorities have to be merged with new ones within this new framework.

Addressing the challenges

At the request of the ITRE Committee, a Cost of Non-Europe study examined the implementation challenges. The study combined an ex-post evaluation, which examined the implementation of the ERA policy framework, with an ex-ante assessment focusing on potential costs and benefits of possible further policy action. In doing so, it identified a number of shortcomings in the ERA policy framework.

The study demonstrates that to address the various bottlenecks in ERA implementation, a mix of policy instruments is required. The Lisbon Treaty allows for the use of a legislative tool, which although not used so far, remains a possible option. In place of a global ERA directive covering all ERA priorities, as suggested in 2012, the Cost of Non Europe study indicates that legislation could be used to address specific objectives. Although legislation needs to be backed by strong evidence that its impact would be positive, the study demonstrates that the issues regarding researcher mobility or open merit-based recruitment procedures in particular could be addressed by legislation to create an open labour market for researchers. Introducing more conditionality for access to EU research funding, a possibility explored on some aspects of Horizon 2020 or the European Structural and Investment Funds, could also be further developed. Nevertheless, the soft tools developed in the last 15 years have led to some progress and have contributed to open dialogue between the Member States and stakeholders; fostering mutual trust; improving monitoring, policy peer review and benchmarking; and supporting the exchange of best practices.

Next steps

Following the adoption of the ERA Roadmap 2015-2020 by the Council in May 2015, the Member States are expected to present their national action plans for ERA at the Competitiveness Council on 27 May 2016. This should open a new step in the implementation of the ERA, bringing it to a more operational level. The assessment of these national action plans and the progress made by the Member States in fulfilling their commitments in the coming years will define the future action taken at EU level to make ERA a reality.

See other Cost of Non-Europe reports.


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