The ERC’s agenda and the EU research and innovation perspectives

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According to the President of the European Research Council (ERC) Maria Leptin, expressed recently in the Robert Foundation’s policy paper, the EU is able to “produce the cutting-edge knowledge needed for economies on the technological frontier to grow further and for Europe to remain a leader at global level”. However, numerous barriers are on the way to the EU’s research and innovation global (and sub-regional) leadership, both managerial and financial…  

Historic developments in the EU’s research
The Single European Act, signed in 1986, included science and research in the Communities’ basic law; among other issues, it defined cooperation and coordination of national research policies as the objectives of the common research policy, provided a clear legal framework for the adoption of the Community’s framework program for research, and offered additional tools for implementation of research policies. Finally, the present EU basic law, i.e. the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) recognised research and development as a shared competence, followed by the ERA’s completion.
In 2006, the European Council approved the European Research Council, ERC and its seven-year € 7.5 billion budget, which made ERC Europe’s new center of excellent researchers. Then, in 2009 the ERC Executive Agency was established as the EU body with 200 staff.
In 2012, the Joint Research Center established a permanent European Forum for Science and Industry (EFSI) in cooperation with the former DG for Enterprise and Industry in order to: a) exchange views on the needs of the industry concerning science and innovation, and b) to strengthen the dialogue and cooperation between science and industry in key sectors to increase European competitiveness and economic growth. The Forum has had more than 1,500 members and brought together public institutions and private companies, scientific communities in the states, European associations, industrial organisations and related networks through regularly organised conferences, roundtable discussions, and bilateral meetings.
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After two decades of ERA’s existence, a “New R&I period” started at the end of 2021, when the EU Competitiveness Council adopted additional measures in research and innovation: i.e. such as conclusions on the governance of the European Research Area (ERA) and a recommendation for the EU-wide “Pact for Research and Innovation”.
Subsequently, the European Research Council (ERC) welcomed these positive steps; previous efforts on the ERA-issues were first declared in 2000 with amendments to follow in 2007, 2012 and in a “new roadmap” in 2015.
The ERA was launched in the beginning of this century (i.e. in January 2000), with the idea of making the EU within a decade (that was by 2010!) to become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”; the ambitious goal was part of the then adopted so-called Lisbon strategy.
Main key element of the two-decade-old strategy was to raise the member states’ R&D investment to 3% of GDP; none of the mentioned goals were accomplished…
The EU-wide research investment is presently at about 2.3% of GDP (2020), which is still far from the 3% target; the USA spends considerably more than the EU with $657bn, followed by China with $526bn and the EU on $440bn.
The ERC’s President noted that in 2018 the EU produced around 21% of scientific publications appeared in the world with the US on 17%. However, in the global share of most influential top 10 highly cited scientific publications, the share of American scientists increased to 31percent compared to 21 percent in the EU.
Presently, China has emerged on the world stage as a great strategic competitor: since the launch of ERA two decades ago, China rather than the EU managed to become a global leader in science, strategic technology areas and industries.
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Perspectives according to ERC…
Formally, the research and development (R&D) concept was transformed into the research and innovation (R&I) approach; the latter, i.e. R&I was seen as a driving force in integrating the EU member states research efforts towards most vital European challenges.

More in: Eteris E. Science and research in solving major global-national problems, in:; Research and innovation: vital issue in shaping European future, in:

There are significant disparities in real GDP per capita among the EU member states, ranging from €82,250 in Luxembourg to €6,380 in Bulgaria, underlined the ERC’s President; the fact that tarnishes a “uniform distribution of research capacities” across Europe. However, there is a positive aspect in this negative situation: i.e. this discrepancy allows some less well-off member states to enjoy catch-up growth. This is why, for example, for several years the Central and Eastern European states have been the fastest growing economies in the EU despite having some of the lowest R&D input. Thus, e.g. Polish economy has been growing steadily for 28 years (before the pandemic) and the country increased its GDP seven-fold since 1990.
In the ERC’s President’s opinion, researcher’s talent and the financial resources remain presently spread and fragmented across 27 different national systems and thousands of research institutions. The general task in this regard is, however, to “aligning these efforts to provide the best possible foundation for tackling the challenges of an unpredictable future”.
Accordingly, the examples of R&I progress in the US and China has shown that: a) researchers shall be free in exploring “scientific future”, and b) all innovations shall be quickly put into commercial practice, i.e. corporate entities shall have potentials and abilities to commercialize quite fast the R&I results. These and other “basic aspects” of R&I progress shall be forming an integral part of national political economy’s patterns.

European “innovation union”: revival of a good idea
As the Commission acknowledged, integration of the member states’ efforts in science, research and innovation into the so-called “innovation union” was key to achieving the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy.
Already in 2015, the Commission revealed three main “open policy goals” for the EU’ then idea of an “innovation union”: i.e. innovation, science and global cooperation for a successful EU’s Innovation Union policy; these three policy goals need additional clarification:
= Thus, “open innovation” means opening up the innovation process to people with experience in fields other than academia and science. By including more people in the innovation process, knowledge will not only circulate more freely, but it can be used to develop products and services that increases employment and creates new markets.
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= “Open science” is a specific approach to the scientific process that focuses on spreading knowledge as soon as it is available using digital and collaborative technology. This is a change from the standard practice of publishing results in scientific publications only at the end of the research process.
= “Open to the world” concept means promoting international cooperation among global research communities participants. Following this concept would allow the EU member states access the latest knowledge worldwide, recruit the best talent, tackle global challenges and create business opportunities in emerging markets. There are three latest reports on global research cooperation for 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Horizon Europe is the main EU’s research and innovation funding program for 2021-2027 and the main tool in implementing European strategy for international cooperation. The program is open to researchers and innovators around the globe and encouraging a “team-up” approach with the EU partners in preparing proposals and facilitating research.
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To revive the “union’s idea”, the Commission elaborated recently the so-called “innovation principles” to assist the scientific community in achieving the EU research policy objectives, mainly by ensuring that legislation is designed in a way that creates the best possible conditions for innovation to flourish. These principles meant that presently and in future – when the Commission and the states develops new growth initiatives – it would have to take into account the science’s innovative effect on growth. Basically, the principles are going to ensure that all new EU policy and/or legislation would support innovation and that all the Commission and the states’ regulatory framework would be “innovation-friendly”.

European “innovation agenda”
In July 2022, the Commission adopted a new EU’s innovation agenda (to substitute the ill-fated innovation union) aimed “to position Europe at the forefront of the new wave of deep tech innovation and start-ups”.
It will help European states to develop new technologies that would both properly address the most pressing socio-economic challenges and quickly bring innovations on the market. In this way, Europe would not only be a place with the best talents but the region would represent a better place for the European companies with deep technological innovations and progressive breakthrough solutions.
The new European “innovation agenda” is expected to:
= improve access to finance for European start-ups and scale-ups, e.g. by mobilising untapped sources of private capital and simplifying listing rules;
= improve conditions that allow innovators to experiment with new ideas through regulatory sandboxes;
= help creating “regional innovation valleys” that will strengthen and better connect “innovation players” in Europe, including in regions lagging behind;
= attract and retain talent in Europe, e.g. by training about one million “deep-tech talents”, increasing support for women innovators and innovating with start-up employees’ stock options;
= improve the science/research policy framework in the member states through clearer terminology, indicators and data sets.

Thus, the new innovation agenda has shown the way to a proper involvement of scientific achievements and all possible innovations into the most optimal and sustainable patterns of growth in the member states. The states just lack modernized political economies directions that would incorporate innovations into growth priorities.


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