The European Research Area - a rather hypothetical region at the best of times - is failing to live up to its potential

Do you work in the European Research Area? This rather hypothetical region was coined as part of the Lisbon strategy, adopted in 2000 with the aim of making the EU the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world within ten years, capable of sustainable economic growth underpinned by science and technology. 

This could only be achieved, ran the argument, by freeing Europe’s research activities from the shackles of national boundaries. In the new European Research Area (ERA), there would be a free traffic of scientists from one country to another, and nation would collaborate with nation to develop complementary research programmes, thus avoiding wasteful overlap. 

Yet today, the ERA is little more than a noble pipe-dream. After years of painfully slow progress, the European Commission is now canvassing for views on how to revive the ERA in the face of competition from the booming economies of China and India.

Meanwhile, EU-based companies currently invest more in R&D in the US than US-based companies do in the EU, and this transatlantic flow is increasing. 

But if European research can only stay ahead by collaborating properly, as proponents of the ERA claim, then the future looks a little rocky. That’s because many of the obstacles to a fully-functional ERA can only be cleared if member states’ governments act in an uncharacteristically co-ordinated fashion. 

For example, variations in taxation and pension schemes across Europe have proved to be a key barrier to researchers’ mobility. So too has an attitude, prevalent in many European nations, that research jobs should always go to national candidates (or even be restricted to internal appointments within institutions). But there’s clearly little appetite for a root-and-branch harmonisation of working practices that could damage a government’s credibility at home. 

The proposed European Institute of Technology is supposed to be a flagship for creating collaborative research communities across national borders. But its remit has been significantly diluted (see Chemistry World, June 2007) as member states balk at the costs involved.

Attracting the world’s brightest scientists to Europe would help. Yet once they arrive at their host nation, non-EU researchers are often prevented from effective international collaboration by visa restrictions. 

Another important way to coordinate different nations’ research programmes is through specialisation. Rather than pouring resources into research that neighbouring countries already invest in heavily, it would make more sense within the ERA to develop complementary programmes. The recently-appointed European Research Council can help, focusing funding on the best European centres while encouraging member states to focus their own efforts.

Yet if member states’ vested interests continue to trump their European obligations, little progress will be made. The problem at the heart of the ERA is that participation is almost entirely voluntary, with no legally-binding targets. Unless stakeholders can persuade the governments of member states to engage fully with the ERA’s goals, it seems likely to remain a dream, however noble. 

Mark Peplow, editor