European Elections coverage – Print edition

European Elections: much general talk, few concrete education and research proposals

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In the past few weeks, European elections debates to elect members of the European Parliament (EP) have been in full swing. The vote will take place between the 22nd to 25th May 2014, depending on the country. In most territories, the mainstream press appears to have little concern over higher education, research and innovation. Instead, the discussions, which were the closest to science were related to societal challenges with a scientific dimension, such as the environment, food security and traceability, energy, health, and the digital age. It is also worth distinguishing the debate taking place in academic and research circles. There, the debate is only touching a few of the issues pertaining to research and education that would need to be addressed.

EuroScientist following its vocation as a participatory magazine, has called upon its network of loyal readers, supporters and reporters to gather an overview of issues that are relevant to scientists debated during the various campaigns across Europe. We also relied on the input of secondary sources, such as education and research professional and advocacy organisations from across Europe, including the organisation backing our magazine EuroScience, which has its own view on the subject.

Thus, this article covers a selected group of countries for which the information on party’s position on relevant issues was readily available to us. These include Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. This article is by no means intended to provide a scientifically rigorous comparison of every single party’s perspective on higher education, research and innovation. Indeed, this would not be possible by relying solely on the secondary sources we used, which covered the parties’ proposal various level of depth of the analysis. Instead, this article will give our readers food for thought by providing an overview and some anecdotal evidence of the debates that have taken place both in the mainstream press and in academic and research circles.

As the election deadline is looming, the general impression emerging from the EP campaign in the national media is that all political parties support education, research and innovation in principle. Corresponding arguments are put forward on the basis that these activities will contribute to employment, address societal challenges such as environment, energy, digital age and health, and counter the effect of the austerity measures previously imposed on citizens.

In the mainstream media, political parties have not built their campaigns on the most pressing key issues relevant to European academics, researchers and tech entrepreneurs. This contrasts with the fact that many recognised the value of education, research and innovation for securing the future of Europe, during the last European budget negotiations.

Instead, in most countries, the debate is dominated by other issues relevant to the national context. One emerging trend is the rise of participative democracy among some of the European parties’ pledge. However, there have been a few notable exceptions in some countries, like Spain, in particular, where research and innovation have been covered by some of the key parties.

We invite our loyal readers to contribute to this article, by submitting links to articles of interest providing an analysis of the parties’ take on higher education, research and innovation in their own country. Particularly, we would like to hear from you if your country has not been included in our initial selection of countries. To do so, you will need to use the comment box at the end of each article. Please join in the conversation about these European elections and let’s progress the debate together!

 

Mainstream EP election debate: Innovation equates with economic recovery

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Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Lars Ploughman

When it comes to innovation, in particular, the dominant discourse during the debates taking place in the running up to the vote to elect members of the European Parliament was about bringing Europe on the path to economic recovery and to ensure economic sustainability.

Innovation

Calling upon research and innovation as a way out of the recession has appeared in many parties’ proposal in Spain, Croatia and Greece as they are countries whose academic and higher education system has been dramatically affected by the recession. However, this debate is confined outside the mainstream public debate.

To a lesser extent, this discourse also appears in Northern Europe. In Sweden, for example, Pfizer’s recent offer to buy pharmaceutical Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca has triggered a debate about the potential loss of R&D, tax revenue, job opportunities etc. By contrast, in the UK, the centre-right conservative party, commonly referred to as Tories (affiliated with the ECR parliamentary group), centred their proposals on supporting industry and the innovation process. They see developing technologies, products and services through research is a key for increasing competitiveness of the EU economy.

However, there is hardly any debate on the specifics of innovation in any country, with arguably one exception. The debate in Denmark referred to patenting, mainly because on the same day as the European elections, Danes will vote on whether or not to join the EU’s Unified Patent Court (UPC). If voted, all litigation concerning the infringement or the validity of patents in Denmark will no longer be decided by Danish courts. The Liberal Alliance (Ny Alliance), the semi-communist Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten – De Rød-Grønne) and the right-wing nationalist Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti), have been blocking an agreement on the Unified Patent Court. However, the debate was more about the potential loss of sovereignty than innovation per se.

It is worth noting that the very same issue of joining the UPC is due to be subjected to a referendum in Ireland, at later date than the European elections. But none of the debates of the current campaign in Ireland referred to such issue. Instead, the dominant themes were about getting out of the recession as well as a raft of national issues, pertaining to health, job creation, the environment .

Lack of concrete measures

Among all the parties contributing to the mainstream media debate, very few come up with truly specific measures to support economic recovery based on research and innovation. In Italy, for example, the Science Debate initiative Dibattito Scienza was created as a Facebook group gathering academics, teachers, researchers, journalists and members of the general public interested in the interaction between science and policy. But it did not get specific feedback from political parties on policy relevant to scientists, only on topics relevant to societal challenges with a scientific aspect.

The lack of details also plagues the pledge of investment in research and innovation made by parties on both sides of the political spectrum. For example, in France, in the mainstream press debate, the left wing socialist coalition (affiliated with the PSE) and the centre right UDI (PPE)-Modem(ALDE) in France— merely name the broad areas of green tech, digital technologies, biotech and nanotech, as examples of areas where investments should be prioritised, without attaching concrete measures. An article in the French left-wing newspaper Liberation wonders why politicians do not use the research, innovation and education theme as part of their campaign in France, given that Europe is one of the biggest research powerhouse globally.

The same applies in the UK, where the left wing Labour party , affiliated with PES, also saw the EU as being essential for promoting cooperation and best practice in research. They also support the role of EU research in policy making, giving as examples those of climate change, emissions trading and the development of sustainable technologies.

Education

Besides, higher education is mainly present in the mainstream media debate on the topic of the expansion of the Erasmus+ programme. It appears, among others, in the proposals from in France (non partisan party Nous Citoyens), in Italy, (the Northern league (Lega Nord), affiliated with EFD), as well as the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, affiliated with the S&D) and in Germany Alliance ’90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen affiliated with the Greens-EFA Group).

Furthermore, in many countries, there is almost no mention of higher education, research and innovation in the mainstream media, at least not related to the EP elections. In Poland, however, the national discussion over providing open access school books to pupils was reinvigorated because of the debates related to the European election. In a similar vein, in Austria, the national highly emotional debate regarding free access to university studies across Europe was revived. And it is one of the measures supported by the Green (Die Grüne, affiliated with the Greens-EFA) and the liberals (NEOS, affiliated with ALDE). The issue is featured among the pre-selected topics on wahlkabine.at, the Austrian version of votematcheurope, which is a tool that allows citizens to test their political preference with respect to specific issues.

Disappointing top level debate

 Finally, a landmark in the public mainstream campaign, took the form of a television debate featuring the five candidates to the EC presidency was held on 15th May 2014. It was broadcasted live over 47 TV stations across 25 countries in Europe. This debate gave the opportunity to European citizens to ask questions using Twitter to the five candidates to the EC presidency, namely Alliance ’90/The Greens’ Ska Keller, EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker, PES’s Martin Schulz, European Left’s Alexis Tsipras and ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt . There were some short references made during the programme to education, for example, but research and innovation issues did not feature prominently.

In the wake of such and other debates surrounding the Presidency of Europe, Andrew Miller, spokesperson for the European University Association (EUA) expressed his disappointement that the issues of higher education and research have not featured more prominently, particularly given that both issues were highlighted during the negotiations and discussion on the 2014-2020 EU budget as being crucial for Europe’s future.

 

Academic and research circles EP election debate: too few concrete proposals

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Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Niccolò Caranti

The debate in the running up to the 22nd and 25th May 2014 vote to elect members of the European Parliament, is also taking place among academic and research circles. Opinions and analyses have been published in the specialist press and on the pages of science and higher education advocacy groups across Europe. A few of them have questioned the main political parties about their intentions in relation to topics relevant to scientists, innovators and academics. Below are outlined the key issues featured in this debate, ranging from the ERA, mobility, higher education, H2020 funding and the national target of investing 3% of GDP in R&D.

Specifically, some have submitted a list of questions in line with their own advocacy interests to various parties. The responses have been published in full by the conference of university rectors in various countries including Germany (HRK), France (CPU), Poland (KRASP), Spain (CRUE). In the same vein, in the UK, it was the campaign for Science and Engineering, CaSE which approached political parties. Meanwhile, in Italy, the UniNew24 magazine aimed at academics has analysed the position of various political parties. In addition, in Spain, El País reports on the analysis of the programme of a selected number of candidates parties, provided by science activist organisation Colectivo Carta por la Ciencia, which is supported by a number of organisations representing learned societies (COSCE), universities (CRUE), trade unions (CCOO and UGT), young scientists (FJI), researchers (PID), and industry (FEI ). Other similar organisations, such as Ciencia con Futuro, and various bloggers performed similar analyses.

Proposals centred on science and innovation

In Spain, for example, although the majority out of the 11 parties selected by activist group Ciencia con Futuro have views over the role of research innovation, two parties, stand out for their concrete proposals; namely the socially liberal party Union, Progress and Democracy (Unión, Progreso y Democracia (UPyD)) and the newly created Spanish Citizen Network X Party (Red Ciudadana (Partido X)). They go as far as proposing concrete measures to support technology transfer, while they joint their voices with that of other parties— the conservative christian democrat Popular Party (Partido Popular (PP), affiliated with EPP), United Left (Izquierda Unida (IU) affiliated with GUE/NGL), Movimiento RED—to support innovative companies and intellectual property protection.

To a lesser extent, the debate in Croatia presents a similar level of awareness to support research and innovation in its proposals. The main opposition party, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ, affiliated with EPP), which was in power before the current government and had failed to push a raft of reforms of higher education and science, has the most detailed plan on research. These views are echoed, to a lesser extent, by a new party headed by former environment minister, ORAH, which proposes to support education and science as one of the ways of boosting economic growth and wants to attract investment in green technologies and innovations in the energy and environment sector. Meanwhile, the current coalition in power, dominated by the social democrats (SDP affiliated with PES), proposes to focus on 12 important topics, one of which is ‘better conditions for education and scientific research’ aimed at young people and their employment.

The Spanish and Croatian proposals strongly contrast with those of another Southern European country, Greece, where the communist party (KKE affiliated with GUE/NGL) is against all forms of privatisation of research, and advocates the separation of research institutions and infrastructure from large enterprises. However, the Greek coalition of radical left SYRIZA (affiliated with EL) has somewhat more moderate views as they pledge to rely on public education and research, as a key driver of the country’s reconstruction and growth and the only way to get out of the crisis. In reality the Greek state spends less than 1% of the GDP in R&D while the Troika (EC,ECB, IMF) demands all loans given to Greece to be paid back, impacting research budgets. As a result, most of the R&D funding comes from EU funded projects.

Mobility in the ERA

Most parties who have a position on research concur on the need in general terms to reinforce the research effort and support the idea of the European Research Area (ERA). In Germany, for example, all parties which are currently in parliament, the Bundestag, favour a completion of the ERA. By comparison, in the UK, the Green Party (affiliated with the Greens-EFA), is the only one to specifically mention the ERA and the problem of its fragmented nature and the need for more cooperation.

Further, the UK Green party is the only one to refer to the need for portability of research grants across the EU. This contrasts with the position of all the German parties surveyed by HKR, which call for an even greater mobility for students and scientists. The Social Democrats (SPD, affiliated with PSE) want to intensify the cooperation with non-EU-Countries, while the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen affiliated with the Greens-EFA) demand an even stronger financial prioritisation of the Erasmus+ program. For the German Left Party (Die Linke affiliated with EL) the most important point is to reduce testing and learning efforts for students to create greater freedom for them.

The majority of Spain’s party surveyed by Ciencia con Futuro actually support mobility, which is somewhat ironical for a country so affected by the brain drain. These parties include the conservative christian democrat Popular Party (Partido Popular (PP), affiliated with EPP), the socialist workers’ party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), affiliated with S&D), United Left (Izquierda Unida (IU), affiliated with GUE/NGL), Union, Progress and Democracy (Unión, Progreso y Democracia (UPyD)) , the new left wing participative democracy party Podemos, the Citizen Network X Party (Red Ciudadana (Partido X)), and the new party created by dissidents of the People’s Party, called Vox. With IU, Partido X and UPyD bringing concrete proposal forward to structure scientists’ careers.

Despite the good intentions expressed by German and Spanish parties on mobility overall across Europe, there are few details in other territories of how the ERA could be implemented in terms of mobility. For example, the KRASP president, Wiesław Banyś writes: “None of the three Polish parties [surveyed] refer to the specific problems related to the development of the ERA, such as mobility of staff, remuneration, health and social insurance during the period of staying abroad, and the impact of mobility on the pensions – all these being fundamental and difficult to overcome barriers to the increase of mobility in the ERA.”

Furthermore, Spain is the only country which goes into the specific details of research. Three parties Primavera Europea, affiliated with the Green/ALE group, single issue animalist party PACMA and Partido X go as far as proposing to make open access publication for research supported by public fund. Another distinguishing approach is Primavera Europea and UPyD refer to the need to support basic research. That distinction is not commonly made elsewhere.

Higher education

Higher education does not appear to be a high priority on the parties’ proposal. However, all the German parties surveyed by HKR encourage support to be provided for this field. By comparison, in the academic circle debate in Poland, two centre right parties, the Civic Platform (PO, affiliated with EPP)and the Polish People’s Party (PSL affiliated with EPP), emphasise an essential financial effort of the country to increase salaries of higher education institutions staff in 2013-2015. The wider financial context is however missing.

The theme of higher education also appears in Greece. The coalition of radical left SYRIZA (affiliated with EL) has a number of concrete proposals pledging to rebuild the educational system. These include the proposal to build a new educational system that will operate democratically and the introduction of a new charter to regulate the rights, obligations, recruitment and evolution of teachers, professors and researchers. These and other measures are clear attempts to tackle the brain drain. By comparison, the proposals of the communist party (KKE affiliated with GUE/NGL), include a mass calls for new permanent, full- time posts for researchers, and administrative and technical staff. Another concrete measures includes counting the years spend doing a PhD as pensionable and contribute to seniority evaluation.

Funding

In effect, the EU’s budget for research and innovation has already been voted. However, there is a planned revision of the H2020 programme in 2016, which could be used to review the overall budgetary commitment in either direction. The parliament had requested €100 billion for research back in 2012, before Horizon 2020 was reduced to €77 billion Euros, which left some asking for more.

Overall, there is a consensus that more resources should be devoted to H2020 for science. Some parties in Spain such as Primavera Europea (affiliated with the Green/ALE group), even propose to seek an increase in the overall H2020 budget to €150 billion. In addition, more concrete proposals in Italy have been put forward by the left wing party AltraEuropa con Tsipras, affiliated with GUE / NGL. For example, they call for a new ‘Maastricht treaty of knowledge’ which would increase the objective and the level of public financing devoted to schools, universities, and research.

Although they agree in principle that more resources would be welcome, the German parties have objections to the realisation to such goal. The Social Democrats (SPD, affiliated with PSE) are concerned that such increase is unlikely given the unwilling European Council for example. The Christian Democrats (CDU affiliated with EPP) emphasise they want to avoid more debts. The Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen affiliated with the Greens-EFA group) sets a prerequisite that the European development policy has to be reorientated towards strategic future-orientated fields. The Left Party (Die Linke affiliated with EL) calls for a better social and regional balance in the European science landscape.

3% target in or out of stability rule

In Germany, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party also insist the EU should push harder for each nation to reach their target of 3% of GDP spent on research. In Poland, only one of the parties, Polish democratic left alliance, SLD (affiliated with PES), speaks about legal guarantees of increasing the funding for research and development to meet the 3% target.

In the UK, the Green party supports the overall objective of reaching 3% GDP by 2020. The UK Liberal Democrats (affiliated with ALDE), specifically mention their support for the Commission’s proposal to raise the European industrial contribution to the EU-wide GDP from 15 to 20% by 2020. The most vocal country on this topic remains Spain with the majority of the 11 selected parties surveyed by Ciencia con Futuro supporting this measure.

In the academic and research circles debate in the rest of Europe, there appears to be a divergence of views between the socialist coalition and the centre right on the need to exclude investment in higher education, research and innovation from the calculation of the GDP deficit limit imposed by the pact of stability. The political divide is consistent across European parties of the same political affiliation.

For example, the French centre right party UMP, affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP), even argue that making exclusions could indeed have the adverse effect of losing the credibility of the 3% deficit target and fail to deliver the stability it is designed to promote. This view is shared by the liberal Free Democratic Party FDP, in Germany (member of the ALDE group of the Parliament). By contrast, like the French socialist coalition, the Polish democratic left alliance, SLD (affiliated with PES) are in favour of such exclusion strategy. Meanwhile, the Italian populist party proponent of direct democracy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (MoVimento Cinque Stelle), also backs the 3% exclusion strategy.

EU funding at the rescue of dwindling national funding

It is worth noting that parties supporting an increase in H2020 budget, aim partly at compensating for the reduction of national R&D funding. What is more surprising is that such dependency on EU funds to do research is not only present in the proposal of Italian, Greek and Spanish parties, but also increasingly in Germany and the UK.

Even though their financial situation is rather good, compared to their counterparts in Southern Europe at least, German universities have suffered setbacks. The federal system makes it particularly difficult for them, because they are financed by regional governments, or Länder—which have already announced severe cuts in their spending in 2014—and not by the federal State.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the need for funding from the EU is recognised by most parties surveyed by CaSE. At a time of declining UK investment, both policy and private, it is ever more necessary to have a strong EU-level programme in which UK researchers can be very successful.

Next steps

This overview of the main parties’ proposal in relation to higher education, research and innovation shows that there is still a gap between the aspirations of the research and academic community in Europe and the way political parties are addressing these issues. It could be a matter of time before more of the issues are considered by politicians. But what the 2014 European election campaign highlights is the lack of concerted action at the level of the large European parliamentary groups to address the case of research and innovation in Europe. No better proof is the lack of sufficient concrete proposals to reinforce higher education research and innovation. There appears to be still a long way to go to put these outstanding issues on the European political map.

Sabine Louët

Sabine is the Editor of EuroScientist.

Additional reporting Jens Degett (Denmark), Mićo Tatalović (Croatia), Tilmann Warnecke (Germany), Elias Aggelopoulos (Greece).

We are grateful to our generous supporters for providing information on the situation in their territories. Without them such reporting could not have been realised. These include Thomas König (Austria), Jean-Pierre Alix (France), Varvara Trachana ( Greece), Athina Stavridou (Greece), Enrico Predazzi (Italy), Francesco Sylos Labini (Italy), Alberto Baccini (Italy), Marcin Krasnodębski (Poland), Amaya Moro-Martin (Spain), Jose Luis De Pablos Hernandez (Spain), Anna Nilsson Vindefjärd (Sweden), Tony Mayer (UK).

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