When I was a young professor some 20 years ago, a typical academic response to the question of how to redesign the world amidst a global economic crisis would have been that you cannot answer such an important question in 1,300 words. Today, however, things are different.
In fact, as the former European commissioner for research, I have witnessed within our scientific community a growing concern about and attention to the future in view of what we call our “Grand Challenges”: the interrelated problems of economic growth, demographic evolution, and sustainable development. We all seem to share the view that if we want to give our kids the same hope for a good future that our parents gave us—which, incidentally, is my political inspiration—then we have to redesign the world around these big problems. What’s more, we do not have the luxury of time to waste.
If Europe wants to play a role in redesigning the future, we need to mobilize and focus our science “ecosystem.” We have a name for it: the European Research Area (ERA). Its goal is to, among other things, unify Europe’s fragmented S&T research efforts through the creation of a single market for scientific knowledge. Organizing the ERA to face the global challenges has been one of my roles as commissioner for research.
We know the challenges our societies are facing. We are in the midst of quite an extraordinary phenomenon: the emergence of a nearly worldwide consensus that our planet needs to be redesigned in an ecological, demographical, economical, and, most of all, sustainable way. We might disagree about how to do it, but Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” is clearly as valid today as it was in the 1960s.
Is this only history repeating itself? You might think so, but historians will tell us that history never repeats itself in exactly the same way. Because, contrary to the 60s, we understand now that designing a more just and sustainable world is an ever more pressing challenge, one that must be done at a global level because these are challenges from an even more interconnected and interdependent world.
Being aware of our need to tackle challenges on the global scale is a new type of thinking that requires policies to address the global governance of the world system, as well as policies that work at the most local level.
The need for these kinds of policies is exactly the impetus for the deepening development of the ERA. Although diverse, its policies have one common operational objective: the creation of a truly single European market for research. A market where knowledge, researchers, and technology can move freely across frontiers, to wherever they can best be used and create the most value.
We call it the “Fifth Freedom,” and it sits naturally alongside the EU’s other four freedoms: the free flow of people, goods, services, and money. I really believe that ERA will be a true success only if knowledge can move in the same way.
This freedom of knowledge is our way forward, as well as our contribution to mobilize the best in European science and research. But we are far from realizing it properly.
To make that goal a reality, we need to realize new partnerships with governments to boost researchers’ careers and mobility. We also need to find ways to ensure the joint programming of national and regional research efforts in Europe. In doing this, we must combine our efforts to tackle our major societal challenges, such as securing green energy or helping defeat Alzheimer’s. We have worked hard to get an EU-wide consensus on essential pan-European research infrastructures for the future and to set out a roadmap to build and operate them. This is what we will do in the coming years. We have established the European Research Council (ERC) to fund frontier research solely on the basis of scientific excellence. The ERC will create a “champion’s league” of research, which will serve as a standard for the world and will inspire more policies to come.
We have also launched large public and private partnerships with industry in the form of Joint Technology Initiatives. And we have developed new, innovative funding instruments such as the Risk Sharing Finance Facility in partnership with the European Investment Bank.
There are more examples, but our aim is clear: to create a unified market and a unifying policy for excellence and relevance in European research. For this to happen, science and research must be high on the political agenda. Not only for the sake of science, but mostly because we need science to play a key role in addressing the challenges ahead.
However, even if I am an academic by training, my years as a policymaker have taught me that science can find solutions to the global challenges—but only if we implement or validate that scientific knowledge effectively. This is what I understand by “innovation”: creating the right conditions for research to be applied and to be successful, at whatever level. Here I believe that we are on the right track, but a lot of work still needs to be done if we want science to play its proper role in the much-needed redesign of our way of living, working, producing, and coexisting.
I spoke of the emergence of the global belief that we must act now to make the world a better place for future generations. What I have also witnessed in my past five years as commissioner is that this political consciousness is matched by an equally strong concern in the scientific community and, most important, among the general public, by a renewed belief that science can and must play its role in redesigning our system. This is another difference between now and the 60s.
Back then, people started to question the role of science in society. The validity of much of that criticism is open for debate, but it led, at least in Europe, to a situation where science was regarded more as part of the problem rather than as the solution. But today this has changed, not least because it is the scientific community itself that is calling for our global challenges to be addressed.
This is extremely encouraging. It means that we are all starting to think in the same direction—an essential mobilization. In Europe we faced a similar change when our societies moved from an agrarian to an industrial model. Today we are facing a change that is no less intense: from an industrial society to a sustainable one built on knowledge. The first period of change was called a Renaissance, based fundamentally on rationality and creativity—both pillars of scientific thinking, as drivers for change. So our redesign might be called a “New Renaissance,” because what we face is more than just a cosmetic rebranding. We are not just rebooting but reforming our way of life.
And to contribute to such a New Renaissance I think the world science ecosystem must evolve toward a “Global Research Area” where the Fifth Freedom becomes a universal freedom. This global initiative will be driven by the societal need to address the “Grand Challenges.” It will become embedded in the policymaking, compelling policymakers to default to the use of science for inspiration. And, finally, it will operate as part of a global “open innovation” pact between all public and private stakeholders.
Even though calls for redesigns are nothing new, we have never had so much potential to actually execute them. There have never been so many scientists or so much knowledge, or such targeted policies to turn this knowledge into the solutions we need for our global challenges.
That is why I am optimistic, regardless of the depth and difficulty of challenges ahead.
Janez Potočnik is the European commissioner for the environment, and a former commissioner for science and research.
Originally published March 7, 2011