The future of Europe depends on research

Written by Soledad Cabezón Ruiz on 23 February 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Bolstering Europe’s research excellency is about more than increasing the EU’s competitiveness, explains Soledad Cabezón Ruiz.

Soledad Cabezón Ruiz | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


The future of Europe depends on research. The economic and political power of the European Union, its influence in the world, must match the level of its commitment to R&D. It is necessary and urgent, because in a globalised world, we are competing with those who dedicate effort to innovation.

This is one of the main points we are focusing on as we prepare the intermediate revision of FP8, the research framework programme known as Horizon 2020, which was approved by Parliament in June 2017. Europe needs to produce more excellence - and it’s within reach.

The current programme finances one in four projects which fulfil the necessary requirements. While this undoubtedly a sign of its success, it’s also a wake-up call. The budget must be extended, which is why Parliament’s report proposes to increase it from €80bn to €120bn for the next financial framework.


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In addition, member states must significantly bolster their commitment to research. In 2015, the EU as a whole invested 2.03 per cent of its GDP in R&D, a long way from what other countries have been investing - 4.3 per cent in South Korea, 4.1 per cent in Israel and 3.6 per cent in Japan.

There are enormous differences between the member states, but currently only Finland (3.2 per cent), Sweden (3.2 per cent) and Denmark (3.1 per cent) are achieving the three per cent objective set out by the Europe 2020 strategy. 

Therefore, our report puts forward several measures to remedy this: investment in R&D could be disregarded in member states’ deficits; EU funds for research could be compatible with structural and cohesion funds; regional innovation strategies could be aligned; and technological unfractured could be developed and maintained.

It’s also crucial to ensure that the principle of additionality of funds is complied with, so that EU contributions do not substitute member states’ public expenditures.

Public funds for research must allow us to advance towards a new objective: social cohesion. R&D is a key factor of competitiveness, but this is only the means to an end, social cohesion.

As such, we call for the introduction of a system to evaluate social impact, which would not be limited to assessing job creation. We need to know if society is able to access and benefits the results of publicly-financed research, especially in certain areas, like health. 

This is why the programme requires greater social participation; priorities should be chosen according to societal needs; science and date should be promoted; transparency should be improved; and mechanisms should be introduced to better spread economic returns from public investment.

The next framework programme must also address the gap between research and innovation. This requires specific measures and clear economic support at all stages of R&D. In addition, society as a whole should be made aware of the results achieved by projects, to avoid silos.

The relationship between the public and private sectors is important, as is improving the balance of interests between them, promoting entrepreneurship from the public sector and adapting the educational system so that it fosters links with R&D right from the start. 

This is why policymakers should consider converting the European research area into a European research and education area. This also means strengthening the SMEs instrument, which has already yielded excellent results.

It’s essential to step up our efforts in the struggle for gender equality. Women make up less than 40 per cent of the scientific community, with the exception of those participating on advisory committees. 

Data on participation in expert panels and in major projects is still low. We must align the European objectives of the programme with national gender strategies and analyse what national barriers women face to access scientific careers. 

The next programme must apply the gender perspective transversely, in the preparation of projects, in the make-up of research groups and in evaluation, which will have to be disaggregated by gender.

Furthermore, a greater role for social sciences is fundamental to respond to the rapid and profound changes facing the EU: nationalist populism, xenophobia, international terrorism, inequalities, migration flows, technological advances, socio-health challenges, climate change and sustainability of natural resources. All of that involves a new paradigm which we must face, while preserving the EU’s values and principles.

Among the areas which would have to be strengthened are health, and in particular cancer, paediatric illnesses, antimicrobial resistance and mental illnesses; as well as agriculture, specifically innovation, combatting climate change and sustainability of water resources, among others.

And of course, excellence and basic science must continue to be key foundations of the programme. Without them there is no future for R&D.

 

About the author

Soledad Cabezón Ruiz (S&D, ES) is Parliament’s rapporteur on the assessment of Horizon 2020

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