All Together Now

Universe in 2009 / by James Wilsdon /

Is Big Science forging a pan-European identity?

Critics of the European Union often gripe that it fails to speak with a clear and unified voice. Henry Kissinger famously complained, “When I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?” And although the institutions of European policymaking have advanced beyond all recognition since Kissinger made this remark, balancing national and collective interests in a union that now embraces 27 member states is a never-ending dance of delicate compromise.

This poses challenges for science, as it does for every other domain of European policy. In 2007, with great fanfare, the European Commission launched its Seventh Framework for Research and Technological Development (FP7). This is the main support mechanism for pan-European research. It will run until 2013 and has a budget of 53.2 billion, an increase of about 50 percent from its predecessor.

Though 53.2 billion sounds impressive, it accounts for only around 5 percent of EU member states’ total spending on research during that period. The bulk of investment continues to be channelled through national funding agencies. There seems to be little appetite to upset this arrangement, particularly among countries with a strong science base, such as Germany, Britain, and France, which have the most to lose from any shift of resources to the pan-European level.

But this issue cannot be ducked for much longer, as two external factors are forcing it up the political agenda. First is the accelerating pace of globalization and the level of ambition and investment in science that we are seeing in China, India, Brazil, and a number of countries in the Middle East. Whether it acts as a competitor or as a collaborator in its research links with these emerging players, there is a powerful strategic case for Europe to act as one, rather than many.

Second is the prospect of a severe and prolonged recession across Europe, which will place huge pressure on public spending. It will also likely bring to an end a 10-year period in which many EU countries have enjoyed above-inflation increases in research money. In this economic climate, the arguments for joint programs and pooled budgets are likely to gather force.

Moves toward a more integrated model of European research are already under way in big-ticket areas of fundamental research. The Large Hadron Collider, which generated worldwide excitement when it opened in September 2008 (before closing for repairs a few days later) involved contributions from 55 countries. Based at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, it is also cofunded by 20 EU member states. With the possible exception of France, most EU countries have long abandoned serious national ambitions in space research, preferring to channel their resources through the 18-member European Space Agency. And the ITER project is a flagship 10 billion effort to demonstrate the technical feasibility of nuclear fusion, involving the entire EU, together with the US, China, Japan, India, Korea, and the Russian Federation. The EU will be at the center of this project, as Cadarache, France, was selected as the reactor site in 2005.

Navigating European science through the challenges of globalization and economic meltdown will force some tough choices.

Another significant step was the 2007 establishment of the European Research Council (ERC), which for the first time allows the best individual researchers across Europe to compete openly for large, long-term funding on the basis of scientific excellence. A first wave of grants has just been awarded, and Fotis Kafatos, who chairs the new council, says that it will give European scientists “the same opportunity to be creative and succeed in the pursuit of research and scholarship as their colleagues across the Atlantic.”

Longer term, the vision of many EU policymakers is of a more open and integrated research system. There is much talk of strengthening the “European Research Area” by reinforcing the network between the EU’s research institutions, as well as creating stronger linkages between the EU and established or emerging centers of research in other parts of the world. In September 2008, Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for science and research, launched a new framework for global science cooperation and called for a renewed push “to transform Europe’s research labyrinth into a European Research Area open to the world, attracting the best brains and contributing to address global challenges.”

Such lofty aspirations are hard to knock, but the route from here to there is far from clear. Navigating European science through the twin challenges of globalization and the economic meltdown will force policymakers to face some tough strategic choices. To compete on the world stage, EU member states will have to use their resources more productively and creatively. Fuzzy concepts like the European Research Area must now be given real purpose and definition, and an honest reappraisal of the balance between national and pan-European research funding must take place. There is also a case for appointing an EU-wide chief scientist, capable of taking a long-term strategic view. In this way, the next time anyone wants to call European science, there would at least be someone to answer the phone.  — James Wilsdon is the director of The Royal Society’s International Science Policy Center.

Originally published January 20, 2009

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