How to balance a European research ecosystem with its national parts

Researchers across France, Spain and Italy are orchestrating a wave of national protests, which will culminate on the 17th and 18th October 2014 in their respective capitals. Their objective is to highlight how Europe’s knowledge economy is being undermined by a lack of investment in research, amongst other factors. European national research systems are struggling; that much is beyond doubt. The question is how to balance national versus EU research support and how the EU can drive rehabilitation of national research systems. Another question is whether the increased focus on excellence-based funding is really necessary. This debate is now fully open.

National research budgets squeezed

In many southern European countries, national funding for research has declined in real terms. Or it has failed to keep pace with increasing salary and infrastructure costs. This means that researchers struggle to finance their research costs. “Universities basically recruit without thinking how the person will get funding to pursue the research portfolio,” says Lynn Kamerlin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Uppsala University, Sweden and spokesperson for the Young Academy of Europe, an association for elite researchers. “This creates a whole generation of disenfranchised young scientists.”

In 2002, the European Union agreed to increase spending on R&D to meet a regional target of 3% of GDP by 2010, of which 1% was to be invested in public research. This, by and large, has not been achieved. As a result, it raises the question of whether the target was realistic in the first place. A 2003 OECD report warned that to achieve these targets would take major social and economic reforms to restructure industry, improve public research governance and to meet requirements for a highly skilled workforce.

Ultimately, the responsibility for research funding lies with Member States. “Many governments in the EU talk the talk,” says Katrien Maes, chief policy officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU), “but if you look at the budget and the actual policies in place, it’s not comprehensive, it’s not wholehearted investment.

Pragmatic solutions

So what can the EU do to influence national governments to invest more wisely in their national research systems? “There is a monitoring mechanism tied to national roadmaps and if Member States don’t adhere to this, the European Commission can call for national corrective measures,” says Maes.

In fact, the fledgling European Research Area (ERA) is giving the EU more powers to rebuke countries who need to invest more in research. This complements two other levers the EU has for influencing national budgets. The European Semester screens national budgets of all Member States and the Maastrict procedure is applied to countries whose budget deficit exceeds 3% of GDP. These levers allow the EU to make strong recommendations on national budgets to ensure sound economic policy – including adequate investment in research.

Some believe that there are ways of categorising national spending on research that could be made attractive to governments. “They [the EC] should make clear that research is an investment,” says Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner, executive coordinator of the pan-European research activism group Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE). He suggests: “spending on research should be exempt from the calculation of government budget deficits.” In addition, research capacity could also be boosted using “regional structural funds,” adds Eppenschwandtner.

Lingering recession

The current situation is linked to the ongoing global recession. Many countries including Spain and Portugal, poured significant investment into research in the early 2000’s, but “unfavourable macro‑economic conditions have [since] directly affected research and innovation in most countries,” says Dominique Guellec, economist and senior analyst in the OECD Science and Technology Directorate in Paris, France. Countries hit by austerity do, however, “try to protect the most excellent and useful corner of [their] public research system,” notes Guellec.

In reality, Southern European researchers now experience the same challenges that their Central and Eastern European peers have always faced, according to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council (ERC), based in Brussels, Belgium. The difference is that Southern European researchers had a taste of investment that has now disappeared. “This resulted in a rapid development of a new generation of researchers,” says Bourguignon, “They now feel that the perspectives they had for their professional development have disappeared.”

Adequate national funding irreplaceable

Today, the ways research funding is being allocated is increasingly challenged by scientists themselves; be it from national agencies or from the well-oiled pan-European funding mechanism such as the Horizon 2020 scheme or ERC grants. For instance, the scope of ERC funding can be restrictive. “The ERC [grant] is an excellence grant for top scientists in Europe,” Kamerlin explains. Bourguignon concedes that the ERC supports “ambitious projects.” This means that “such funding must be worldwide competitive,” he says, stressing however “it is not meant as a substitute for national funding, and cannot replace it.”

Scientists across Europe increasingly fear that the concentration of both national and EU funds into excellence-based funding programmes could lead to a catch 22 situation for an entire generation of researchers. These researchers feel may not be able to achieve excellence, because they were never given a chance, due to the lack of investment in their national research systems.

Exellence-driven funding mechanisms are not the only ones under scrutiny. Many scientists also complain that the current priority-driven model of funding compromises researcher autonomy . For example, this is the case for calls in Horizon 2020 designed to tackle society’s challenges, including health, ageing and global warming.

Scientists also fear that such an approach threatens blue skies research that may not show its value for years or even decades. Some are unapologetically pragmatic in this aspect. “There are so many people who are working on so many issues that you cannot fund everybody at the same time,” says the OECD’s Guellec. He adds: “It doesn’t seem shocking to me that when society or government pays, people do it for having some end in mind.”

Southern European researchers hope that their united show of protest over the coming weeks will serve as a wakeup call both for their national governments and for the EU. The long term stakes are high for everyone, not just researchers, should Europe loses its global position as a knowledge hothouse. Guellec concludes: “we can’t really imagine a dynamic economy without research. That can’t be.”

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Glyn Lowe

Go back to the Special Issue: Research Activism

Fiona Dunlevy

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