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European Researchers Strive for a New ERA

17 July 2012 6:25 pm
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European Commission

Neelie Kroes (left) and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

BRUSSELS—If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again. That philosophy of persistence was on display here today at the signing ceremony for a joint statement and memorandum of understanding between the European Commission and key research organizations and funding bodies in the commission's Berlaymont headquarters here. The target of their tenacity and the subject of the signed documents was the long-held dream of enabling European researchers to easily move and conduct research across the European Union's member states, a goal encapsulated by the notion of the so-called European Research Area (ERA).

"The 150,000 researchers and engineers in Europe are well aware that research in the E.U. is often fragmented. That's the reason why we need the European Research Area," said Jan Mengelers, president of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), which represents the interests of some 350 organizations.

As one part of bringing about the ERA, the signed documents call upon E.U. members to remove barriers to cross-border research careers in Europe. "We are asking member states to step up the pursuit of joint research agendas, enhance competitive funding for institutions and projects and invest efficiently in world-class facilities," Robert-Jan Smits, the European director general for research, added at a press conference. "Up to now, what has been done it is not enough. Almost 80% of the research community has indicated that a lack of open and transparent recruitment hinders international mobility."

And to make the fruits of European research more accessible to everyone, the European Commission also announced that open access would be a "general principle" of Horizon 2020, the European Union's main funding initiative due to launch in 2014. "Today marks an important milestone and a basis for a new era. The ERA is an idea whose time has come. The goal is to enable researchers, science institutions, academia and business to better move, compete and co-operate across borders," declared Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, E.U. commissioner for research, innovation, and science, as she welcomed some 100 representatives of Brussels research lobbyists to the ceremony.

Though arguably still far from a reality, the ERA has a long history. Its origins can be traced back to an idea of physicist Philippe Busquin, who was the E.U. commissioner for research from 1999 to 2004. He envisioned creating a "critical mass" for Europe's researchers and coined the "European Research Area." His successor at the Brussels headquarters was the Slovenian Janez Potočnik who brought the ERA concept into the Framework 7 Programme, the massive research funding program that began in 2007 and runs through 2013.

Those at the Brussels meeting today said the time has now come for E.U. research organizations to define and implement ERA's principles for accessibility and portability of national grants and to publish job vacancies on a common Internet E.U.-wide portal. "What is needed is a system to fill research positions in a transparent, open and merit-based recruitment procedure and to step up links between industry and academia," Smits said.

Paul Boyle, president of Science Europe, promised Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn that his new organization would help deliver on the ERA's promise: "Science Europe is fully committed to playing a central role in the development of the ERA. We see ERA as creative, flexible, trust-based, dynamic and evolving. It is something that can only be a success if all stakeholders work together." Boyle's endorsement is seen as crucial because Science Europe, which was founded in October 2011, comprises 50 research funding and research implementing organizations from 25 countries, representing around €30 billion in annual science funding.

Science Europe, along with EARTO, the European University Association, and other groups, will also be working together to implement whatever open access policy the European Union ultimately settles on. Under the commission's new proposal, papers that result from Horizon 2020 grants will either be made publicly available online immediately by the publisher or will go into a public repository 6 months after publication, (The deadline for social sciences and humanities articles will be 12 months.) "We want to promote open access to research publications from E.U.-funded projects, as well as from nationally funded research," said Neelie Kroes, the commissioner in charge of the European Union's digital agenda

The commission proposes that article fees charged by open access journals would be eligible for reimbursement by research funders. Open access advocates had been pushing for such a policy in the hopes that the Horizon 2020's potential €80 billion in funding could give open access a significant boost across Europe. The proposal, however, still needs to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers as part of the overall Horizon 2020 program.

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