The much-welcomed renewed interest in the European Research Area (ERA) was concretely kicked off last year with the European Commission Communication on “A new ERA for Research and Innovation”. Under the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, this was followed by Council Conclusions on the New European Research Area, which called for an inclusive governance. However, more than three months later, we still do not know what the ERA governance will look like and, more importantly, how stakeholders will be involved.
Having historically been a strong advocate and a formal partner in shaping the ERA since 2012, the European University Association (EUA) has expressed the concerns of the sector on the lack of clarity on the ERA governance; the Commission Communication mentions the role of stakeholders only on a few rare occasions and without providing any detail. This is a far cry from the time when a structural collaboration between the Commission and Europe’s universities guided the development and implementation of an ERA that worked for the benefit of all European R&I stakeholders.
The new ERA has very ambitious goals for R&I, which is rightly highlighted as one of the key features of Europe’s recovery, enhanced preparedness and resilience, competitiveness, and sovereignty. To be successful, the new ERA will need to bring together not only the Commission and EU member states, as we see happening today, but all the key R&I stakeholders including universities.
“To be successful, the new ERA will need to bring together not only the Commission and EU member states, as we see happening today, but all the key R&I stakeholders including universities”
First and foremost, the word “stakeholder” says it so well: universities have a major stake in the new ERA as they are instrumental in gathering the evidence needed to identify key challenges and find their solutions. The development of the new ERA must not be based only on a select number of voices. Instead, evidence-based policy for the ERA will only be formulated following a structured dialogue with diverse R&I actors. This is the only way to ensure that inclusive, effective and flexible R&I systems are at the core of the ambitions set for the new ERA.
Universities have played and will need to continue to play a central role in the ERA, as they have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the recovery. Vaccines are a perfect illustration of the societal impact of universities on Europe’s R&I. The vaccines we see administrated today, to save lives and to enable us all to move back to a more normal life, are all directly or indirectly the consequence of research and innovation that has been taking place at universities for decades.
Furthermore, the Commission Communication and Council Conclusions rightly state that the new ERA should be anchored in the principle of excellence - while the Communication specifically calls for revision of research assessment practices. However, the meaning of excellence in the Communication is limited to proxy indicators based on scientific articles. This is at odds with recent initiatives from universities and national systems across Europe to move away from an overreliance on publication-based metrics. While the proposed key actions in the Commission Communication link research quality to the “number of highly-cited publications”, the momentum for the transition to Open Science - whose importance has been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic - is pointing towards more holistic assessment approaches. That is why the new ERA needs a broad and forward-looking definition of excellence to be co-created with representative bodies of universities and R&I stakeholders.
“The development of the new ERA must not be based only on a select number of voices. Instead, evidence-based policy for the ERA will only be formulated following a structured dialogue with diverse R&I actors. This is the only way to ensure that inclusive, effective and flexible R&I systems are at the core of the ambitions set for the new ERA”
Finally, to fulfil Europe’s innovative ambitions, the instrumental role that universities play in regional ecosystems will be needed to foster regional development and industrial competitiveness. As honest brokers, they are connected and bring together industry and society in ways that go beyond the short-term project-based transfer of already established knowledge. Similarly, the new ERA will need to enable dialogue and synergies with the European Education Area. Here, again, universities have a central role as unique places where research, innovation, and education in service to society are brought together.
Universities and other R&I stakeholders must be included in the new ERA governance system through which the Commission and member states will “set and update policy priorities, monitor and assess progress and ensure strategic advice”. The European Research and Innovation Days website uses the slogan “Let’s shape the future together”. To do this, we need a comprehensive and structured dialogue with all stakeholders. This is the only route towards a co-developed, co-designed, co-created and, thus, successful new ERA.