A ‘single market for research’ is closer, but not yet a reality

It is widely accepted that Europe needs more investment in research and innovation. Investment that will advance knowledge, make people’s lives better, and safeguard our economic competitiveness. What is less well understood is that spending alone is not enough. The money needs to be spent efficiently and with the greatest possible impact. That’s why making the European Research Area (ERA) a reality is a key structural reform for Europe. The ERA Progress Report 2013, the first of its kind, shows that in many countries policies are in place to support a single market for research. However, it also shows that we still have a long way to go.

Effective cross-border cooperation

One of the areas that most symbolises the ERA is cooperation across borders. We need that critical mass to efficiently address the big challenges and make the best use of scarce resources. EU framework programme funding has led the way, and the new programme – Horizon 2020 – will have nearly 80 billion euro–in current prices adjusted for inflation–available over the next seven years. However, according to one study, less than 1% of national public research funding is currently spent on transnational cooperation.

Linked to this, connectivity between researchers and researcher’s access to services have to be improved. According to our ERA survey, less than 25% of research organisations support “cloud” services, and less than 40% have research collaboration platforms. Even if EU Member States have taken action to promote the so-called Digital ERA, the conditions are not yet fully in place to support seamless online access to digital research services.
But it is when you zoom in on individual researchers that the barriers to the ERA become very apparent.

Good researchers should be able to seek out and join the best research organisations across the continent, whether on a temporary or a permanent basis. According to our ERA survey, 80% of internationally mobile researchers believe that mobility has improved their research skills. Bibliometric data shows that internationally co-authored work is on average more frequently cited than purely domestic papers.

Remaining challenges to mobility

There are a host of barriers to researcher mobility, however. These include limits on the accessibility to grants by non-nationals and lack of portability of grants across borders. A recent study by Science Europe indicates that researchers are less mobile between European Member States than they are between American States. So far, around 31% of EU post-PhD researchers have worked abroad for at least 3 months in the past 10 years, according to the MORE2 study.

Open recruitment is essential for mobility in the European Research Area. Vacancies must be announced as openly as possible so that any researcher has access to the information and the possibility to apply. In 2012, around 36,000 jobs were advertised in EURAXESS, a free portal set up by the EU which not only includes job openings but also provides services for mobile researchers. Only 10% of research performing institutions responding to our latest ERA surveysaid that they systematically advertised vacancies on EURAXESS.

Better designed career path

Achieving the ERA also means that students attracted to science must have career prospects. Member States have endorsed the Commission’s charter for researchers careers. It sets out the general principles and requirements which specifies the roles, responsibilities and entitlements of researchers as well as of employers and/or funders of researchers. However, most research organisations lack financial resources to implement a human resources strategy in their institutions, according to our ERA Survey).

Of course to really create an ERA for individual researchers, social security issues including pensions will need to be moved forward. This is not an easy task, with 28 different social security systems in place. The Commission is investigating the feasibility of setting-up a multi-country Retirement Savings Vehicle, which could help in providing retirement benefits to researchers throughout the European Research Area.

Another major barrier to the ERA is gender equality. Only five Member States have specific legislation for gender equality in research. Incentives for institutional change are scarce. And flexible careers are facilitated by only 30% of research organisations.

Next stages in ERA

We now need all EU Member States and all those involved in research and research funding to make a major push for the ERA. The Commission is working with Member States and research organisations and funders on the basis of our communication on the ERA from last year. Soon, Horizon 2020 will kick in and provide even more support. For instance, it will take a strong stance on gender equality and open access, support research infrastructures, and widen excellence through what are referred to as >ERA Chairs as well as twinning and teaming.

2014 will be ‘crunch time.’ Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will deliver a more detailed progress report to assess where we are. There will be some tough decisions to be taken, not least on whether legislation in certain areas may be necessary. No options are off the table. One thing is however clear: partnership between the EU Institutions, the Member States and all stakeholders will remain of utmost importance.

Even more importantly, we need researchers themselves to speak up and talk to their governments, funding authorities and institutions, if they want the ERA to become a reality.

Michael Jennings

EC Spokesperson for Research, Innovation and Science

Featured image credit: European Union 2013- Hologram of Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

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