A new drive to realise the vision of a European Research Area (ERA) was launched at a meeting of European Union research ministers last week.

At the informal meeting of the EU’s Competitiveness Council in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, the research ministers agreed on a fresh partnership with the European Commission, the ‘Ljubljana Process’, with the aim of better exploiting operational synergies between research personnel and resources to usher in a “genuine single” ERA.

The initiative recognises that countries like the United States and Japan are often ranked higher than Europe on competitiveness and innovation, as well as the new challenge from fast-growing economies such as China.

“The world will not wait for Europe to agree on a definitive vision of the European Research Area or to specify its further actions down to the fine details,” commented the president of the Competitiveness Council, Slovenian Economy Minister Andrej Vizjak. “That is why we have already made a start today.”

The ERA initiative was first launched by the Commission in 2000, with the goal of creating an internal market for research in the EU while improving the co-ordination of national research policies and activities.

Further to go

But a Green Paper on new perspectives for the ERA published by the Commission in April 2007 admitted that, although some progress had been made, there was “still much further to go to build ERA, particularly to overcome the fragmentation of research activities, programmes and policies across Europe”.

Scientists have lamented the continuing primacy of nationally oriented research, especially in the larger EU member states, and the reluctance in Europe to fund the kind of riskier projects supported in the US.

Ministers meeting in Slovenia acknowledged that a good deal more coherence and synergy were needed to ensure a globally competitive, knowledge-based and innovative Europe through the ERA.

The ‘Ljubljana Process’ includes the recognition that Europe needs a long-term vision for the ERA, agreed by all the member states and with broad support from stakeholders and citizens. This should be based on the Lisbon agenda of making Europe a leading knowledge economy and society based on the ‘knowledge triangle’ of research, innovation and education, the ministers proposed.

The Slovenian presidency will present a first outline of the long-term vision for the ERA at the next meeting of the Competiveness Council. The objective is to have the vision endorsed by the end of 2008, so that policies and actions can swiftly follow.

The ministers agreed this vision should include:

– Free movement of knowledge - the ‘fifth freedom’, with excellent training and
attractive career prospects for researchers moving and interacting freely across
Europe.

– Modern universities and research organisations developing globally competitive networks to deliver premium science and technology throughout Europe with the optimal mix of specialisation and variety.
– All players in the research and private sector should enjoy conditions
favourable to investment in research and the exploitation of its results, with access to world-class research infrastructures, participation in open and well-coordinated research programmes, knowledge-sharing across sectors and borders, and strong links and co-operation with partners outside Europe.
– Citizens should benefit from large-scale R&D programmes geared to resolving major societal challenges.

There was also consensus that Europe must achieve better political governance of the ERA programme to steer and stimulate its development while building links with other policy areas such as education and innovation.

This governance initiative should incorporate certain fundamental principles, such as the ERA’s relationship to the Lisbon Partnership for Growth and Jobs and the need to involve fully all stakeholders including regional authorities, universities, research organisations, civil society and business, the Slovenian Presidency noted.