Manifesto Urges Breaking Down Europe's Scientific Borders

18 October 2013 2:15 pm

European Commission

Scientists without borders? A 2014 deadline for the ERA will be missed, a European Commission report acknowledged last month.

BRUSSELS—For more than a decade, Europe’s politicians and research leaders have talked about the need to make it easier for scientists to work with their colleagues across borders and relocate within the European Union. But despite the talk, the concept of a “free market for research” hasn’t advanced much.

Now, two members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have proposed taking legally binding measures to force E.U. countries to take the idea seriously. But their proposal, presented here at a meeting on 16 October, has elicited lukewarm responses from universities and research funders.

The suggestion comes from two Italian MEPs from different political sides: Luigi Berlinguer, a democrat and former science minister in his country, and Amalia Sartori, the conservative chairwoman of the Parliament's research committee. In their manifesto, titled A Maastricht for Research, Berlinguer and Sartori say the time has come to “speed up” the advent of the so-called European Research Area (ERA) through E.U. directives and even a “constitutional commitment.” (E.U. directives are used to align national laws by a set deadline, leaving member states free to decide how they meet shared E.U. goals.)

The document's title refers to the landmark Maastricht treaty, signed in 1992, which created a single European market ensuring the free movement of goods, capital, people, and services. Eight years later, the idea to create the “fifth freedom” emerged—the free circulation of researchers, scientific knowledge, and technology. By 2014, ERA would make the European Union's research policies more coherent and enable scientists to move from Athens to Paris as easily as U.S. scientists relocate from Boston to San Diego.

The reality is very different. R&D policy mostly remains the turf of individual member states, with distinct programs and rules. For example, management and political barriers often make it complex to build and share expensive, pan-European research facilities, and a patchwork of vastly different pension and social security systems can make moving across borders very impractical or financially unattractive.

In a progress report released last month, the European Commission acknowledged that the European Union risks falling short of the 2014 deadline. “There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done,” research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said at the time, calling once again on member states to do their part.

The manifesto lists ways to make more progress, including coordinating national research programs, improving cross-border arrangements for pension and social security rights, or making research grants portable from one country to another. And it proposed doing so through legal means instead of good intentions and calls from Brussels to cooperate.

The manifesto has been endorsed by six other MEPs who have focused on research policy issues, as well as by former research commissioner Philippe Busquin, who championed the ERA concept in its early stages.

Two years ago, Geoghegan-Quinn herself had likened the creation of the ERA to that of the European Union’s single market for goods and services. But in July 2012, she settled for a soft approach and signed nonbinding ERA agreements with universities and research organizations. "My political instinct would have been to go for a legislative proposal on ERA. I was convinced […] particularly by member states that they would prefer to give a chance for ERA to work with softer measures,” she explained after a meeting of E.U. science ministers here last month. “I wouldn't rule out the legislative route for my successor,” said Geoghegan-Quinn, who finishes her term next year.

In any case, this would not be about merging national research systems or institutions, her spokesperson says. “Legislation is not a quick fix and would be complex. We're dealing with research systems, not markets,” he says.

Kurt Deketelaere, a law professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and an expert on E.U. science policy, says Geoghegan-Quinn did not have time to launch a complex legislative process that would have prompted resistance from member states, which generally want to retain control over their policies. The nonbinding agreements brought fresh impetus and visibility to the issue, he says.

However, “it's quite naive to imagine that you can create the fifth freedom without legislative measures,” Deketelaere adds. These could be specific rules (for example on pension rights or VAT rates for the purchase of research equipment) and/or a broad framework directive, allowing individuals to challenge countries that block the free circulation of scientists and ideas.

The European University Association (EUA) isn’t convinced. “Legislative measures may not be the best way to promote the necessary changes in the university sector,” says Lidia Borrell-Damian, EUA's head of unit for research partnerships. Borell-Damian cites the example of the so-called Bologna process to harmonize higher education across Europe, which has taken place since 1999 through gradual “bottom-up” measures, rather than being imposed from the top down.

Science Europe, a group of research organizations and funding agencies, sounds a similar note of caution. “It is premature,” says senior policy officer Sébastien Huber. “European cross-country collaboration at research level is similar in volume to interstate collaboration in the United States,” Huber says. Instead of focusing on the negative, Europe should play to its strengths and preserve its diversity of approaches rather than seeking alignment between countries.

E.U. heads of state will discuss the ERA at a European Council meeting here next week, but any concrete action is unlikely until the commission is renewed next year, after elections for the European Parliament in May.

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