Three ways of looking at the European Research Area

Our President Rik Van de Walle delivered a speech ´Three ways of looking at the European Research Area´ to the Doctoral Congress Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto on 28 June 2021.
28th June 2021
Back to overview

Our President Rik Van de Walle delivered a speech ´Three ways of looking at the European Research Area (ERA)´ to the Doctoral Congress Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto on 28 June 2021 (see presentation), please check against delivery (see unlisted YouTube video).

Speech starts at time stamp 07m:00s.


“Dear colleagues, dear João.

Thank you for inviting me to this Doctoral Congress Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto.

Speaking about the European Research Area - usually abbreviated as ERA - is as you will see very important and very timely.

Today I speak to you as engineers, scientists and potential future university leaders. Being an engineer myself, the ERA is of particular importance to us from Ghent University, to our community of over 53 research-intensive universities of S&T united within CESAER and - indeed - to me personally. Since the establishment of our association back in 1990, we have committed and contributed to the advancement the ERA, since 2013 as a so-called ERA Stakeholder Organisation

To bring the ERA closer to you today, I will offer you three ways of looking at it:

  1. First, I will touch upon the current political initiative from the European Union called after a document titled A new ERA for Research and Innovation, i.e. look at the ERA from a political perspective;
  2. Second, I will go back in time and reflect on the inclusion of the ERA as the free circulation of researchers, scientific knowledge and technology into the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, i.e. from a EU constitutional perspective;
  3. Third, I will go even more back in time and recall the role of research, education and innovation since the end of World War Two in assuring that we never have war and hunger again in Europe, i.e. from a societal perspective.

We will share this presentation with the organisers for distribution to you and please note the links in this presentation: they are underlined and can be clicked on.

Let us first look at the ERA from a political perspective.

The EU in less than a year has launched this political initiative named after a communication from the European Commission called A new ERA for Research and Innovation which was quickly followed by conclusions of the Council of the EU - that means by the research ministers of the EU member states.

I encourage you to read both documents as they will have concrete and tangible impact on you as early stage researchers.

The Council and Commission now work on a ´Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe´ outlining the (i) principles and (ii) priorities for the coming years.

This will be followed by the development of national ERA action plans which stakeholder organisations such as universities and researchers such as you - amongst others - are expected to implement.

So far so good. But looking at the steps on the left side of this slide, you will find that the Council is expected to adopt a ´recommendation´ later this year, as opposed to the earlier conclusions.

This is the point where I as an engineer, rector and president of a university association need advice from experts in European affairs in my university and from CESAER to explain to me such legal nuances and to translate the terminology used in such documents.

From this analysis and following discussions within CESAER and with other ERA stakeholder organisations, differences emerged between the Council and Commission on the one side and some ERA stakeholder organisations on the other.

These differences concern:

  • The level of ambition of this initiative, think of truly realising earlier commitments concerning the funding levels for research and innovation in Europe
  • The legally binding nature of it, think of the commitments of national governments to effectively remove legal barriers and obstacles to the free circulation of researchers in areas such as pensions, social security and migration.
  • The engagement of ERA SHO such as CESAER in this initiative noting that we have committed and contributed since thirty years already.

To better understand these differences between the ´state´ on the one side and ´academia´ on the other and to find ways to resolve them, we need to look from different perspectives.

Let us therefore now look at the inclusion of the ERA in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, that is to say from a broader and EU constitutional perspective.

From a constitutional perspective, what ends up in legislation such as the one establishing the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation - the current tenth edition is called Horizon Europe - reflects the status quo of European integration.

Before looking at the ERA in the EU treaties, with this slide I highlight that the European integration in the field of EU funding for research and innovation has occurred over a much longer period than the current political initiative I presented before.

In fact, Research and Technological Development (RTD) were included in the very first predecessor of the EU called the European Community for Steel and Coal back in 1951.

Moreover, from this slide you can see that since then major other EU funding programmes for research and innovation emerged such as the Framework Programmes in 1984 and EUREKA in 1985.

I reckon many of you carry out your scientific activities and develop new technologies co-funded by such EU programmes and therefore you are aware that this entails complex and far-reaching managerial, administrative, legal and financial implications. That is why research-based universities such as the University of Porto and Ghent University have highly specialised and professional staff supporting you in this matter.

Finally and importantly, you can also see that it took until 1986 before research became a formal community policy objective under the Single European Act from 1986: a basis for European industry and an encouragement to industry to become more competitive at the international level.

But you and I as researchers very well know that academia does not work exclusively for the sake of business and industry. There is more to what we do.

That is why the debates over European integration in research continued after the 1980s with an important and game-changing moment for European academics, academic institutions and academia: the year 2007!

So following the establishment of various Community programmes for RTD, Rolf Dahrendorf already in the nineteen seventies initiated the thinking around European integration in research policy. And others followed him in the decades thereafter.

But from the very beginning, there were major discussions and divisions that needed to be resolved.

One of the most important divisions was and somehow still is between (i) those who aim at integrating the diverse and divergent national S&T systems into a ´Single Area for European Science´ - for the sake of the argument let us call them ´federalists´ believing in an ´ever closer Union´ and (ii) those who insisted on coordination amongst the national science systems in the member states - let us call them ´confederalists´ believing in national sovereignty and subsidiarity between the EU and its member states.

The Belgian Commissioner Philippe Busquin in 2000 revived and intensified such debates with his successors publishing consecutive communications on the ERA in 2008, 2012 and the one in 2020 that I presented to you earlier.

Arguably, the inclusion into the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 of (i) the ERA in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely (article 179) and (ii) the EU institutions establishing measures for the implementation of this ERA along the ordinary legislative procedure (article 180) was to finally bring in also the federalist´s view into the EU treaties. This is indeed the game-changing moment that I mentioned earlier.

Rather unsurprisingly, the member states in 2012 walked away from the negotiations on the implementation of the ERA with the Commission and the ERA stakeholder organisations such as CESAER .

Although the ERA stakeholders and their members were very committed and put a lot of efforts, the successes were limited without active contributions of the member states.

By 2016, the ERA had largely disappeared from the European agenda until the Council revived it in 2018: it called upon the Commission to come forward with a proposal for the renewed ERA - which resulted in the one I presented to you before.

In fact, part of the differences concerning the ERA as the current political initiative is exactly about the true nature and geographic scope of the ERA: is its achievement (i) a next step in European integration paving the way for more free, more competitive, more collaborative and easier S&T in entire Europe and even beyond OR is the ERA (ii) a compilation of now 27 diverse and divergent national S&T systems?

Such discussions to us academics might come across bewildering as we feel that S&T are truly international - or better - global undertakings steered by peer review and under the assumption of self-regulation of academia along scientific integrity, academic freedom and institutional autonomy of universities.

This is exactly why we need to take yet another third perspective to understand even better the relevance of the ERA for scientists such as you and I.

The third perspective on the ERA departs from the Europe of the middle-ages without nation states wherein researchers (but also artists by the way) and knowledge in principle circulated freely - limited locally only by for example wars or pandemics.

From this perspective, S&T somerhow and education in Europe in particular since the seventeenth century were put under the control of states and subsequently as of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century nationalised.

You all are aware of the grave consequences of these two processes for academics, academic institutions, S&T systems and arguably the entire global S&T system with the epicentre of academia moving from Germany to the United States of America after the Second World War.

But recalling Robert Oppenheimer, we scientists - and we engineers in particular - may never ever forget the devastating consequences that our scientific knowledge and our technologies had on societies all over the globe.

So the modern origins of the ERA lie in the resurrection of European research and innovation from the ashes of World War Two.

Against this dramatic backdrop, we need to seek the origins of the ERA in the establishment of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in 1949.

Inspired by the autonomous position of academia in the American and British societies, this organisation as of its establishment added a European dimension in education, defended academic freedom and helped academics and academic institutions in many countries in Europe - including Portugal - to liberate themselves from oppression by and submission to autocratic states and political parties.

The Council of Europe was crucial in empowering academic cooperation across borders and the Iron Curtain to build the bridges between conflicts, cultures and countries paving the way for economic and political cooperation and - after its fall in 1989 - the integration of new member states from Eastern Europe into the EU.

As you can see from the slide, the endeavours originating in the Council of Europe in 1949 were taken up by the EU in the course of the following decades, notably also through the Erasmus Programme in 1987 and more recently the European Universities.

This perspective attributes to academics and academic institutions a societal responsibility to teach democratic citizenship to our students and to advance the European identity with the next generations to help ensuring that we never have war and hunger again in Europe.

At the heart of our societal responsibility lie two sets of values:

  1. First, we must safeguard scientific integrity, academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Dear colleagues, that is why I really advise to read, understand and live the principles laid down in the Magna Charta Universitatum.
  2. Second, we must promote sustainable peace and prosperity incorporating respect for rule of law and human rights, democratic citizenship, evidence-based policy making and free circulation of knowledge. These are arguably rather universal than European values, but we here in Europe - given our history and our role worldwide - in my view have a special responsibility in this respect and need to seek like-minded partners to promote compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an illusion to think that we have achieved both sets of values within the EU once and for all. If you read the news you will - sadly - find striking examples of interferences on both sets of values also within EU member states. I was not going to refer to the European Championship because of your loss yesterday evening, but the example of Hungary is too alarming not to be mentioned here: promoting equality, diversity and inclusion is key.

The changed geo-political context, the changed expectations to academia, the emerging key technologies and digitalisation urge us all to come into action and to defend these values everywhere in Europe and beyond.

Dear colleagues, it is exactly from this societal perspective that major achievements such as the ones shown on the left side of the slide were established structurally changing S&T in Europe:

  • CERN since 1954 to make sure that the scientific knowledge from particle physics and nuclear technologies would not destroy our planet;
  • The MSCA since 1996 to boost the careers of early stage researchers such as you when crossing borders and to work together with colleagues from business and industry;
  • The ERC since 2007 to provide grants for investigator-driven frontier research selected solely on the basis of scientific excellence;
  • The EIC since this year to support disruptive innovations and to scale them up globally;
  • And so on ...

On the right side you see that the EU in 2003 acknowledged the unique position of research-intensive universities: they cover the entire knowledge triangle of research, education and innovation within knowledge-based societies (as opposed to industrial or postindustrial societies).

This acknowledgement led to far-reaching competencies for universities which since then can autonomously negotiate the managerial, financial and legal aspects of consortia under the framework programmes I mentioned earlier. It also paved the way for ERA stakeholders to step forward and assume their responsibility to contribute to achieving the ERA together with all partners.

By the way, your country and our fellow engineer Mariano Gago played a major role in the societal design of the current competitiveness paradigm through the Arrabida meetings.

All this resulted in the so-called Lisbon agenda as agreed upon by the European Council in 2000 to create jobs and boost economic growth along the knowledge triangle and between (i) state, (ii) business & industry, and (iii) academia. More recently, the citizens were added to this so-called triple helix.

Universities of S&T thereby operate at the forefront and demonstrate extensive and elaborate experience in the cooperation with business and industry, and governments alike.

But we all are aware of the tremendous local and global challenges such as the current Covid-19 pandemic and the ones that loom behind it: think of climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution and so forth.

When speaking about the ERA from this societal perspective, we academics and engineers must reflect about:

  • A human-made world;
  • The values and ethical frameworks needed;
  • The enlargement and broadening of our collaborations to other partners such as NGO´s, artistic organisations and so forth.

In essence, we academics and academic institutions need to become and act as agents of the great changes and transformations needed to help tackling these tremendous local and global challenges.

It is from this societal perspective where we scientists and engineers can engage in a fruitful dialogue about the rationale and objectives of European policies for research, education and innovation and the design of the corresponding EU funding instruments that help achieving the ERA.

Because it matters to you and me as scientists and engineers whether you get a grant selected solely on the basis of scientific excellence or on the expected impact as articulated by industry via the Commission.

In this slide you see some of the design considerations for the EU policies and funding programmes. I could elaborate for each of them how the choice for one or the other will have impact on us and our knowledge-based societies.

In essence, the choices made along such considerations will greatly determine who will benefit from your scientific results and technologies:

  • A local politician expecting immediate impact to win the next election;
  • A large corporation expecting incremental innovation to maximise profits;
  • The poor and disadvantaged because you offer your S&T as a global public good;
  • Humankind as a whole because your broaden your problem definitions and methods and work together with colleagues from the social science and humanities;
  • Planet Earth because you succeed to transmit your solutions to local challenges to the global level along systems thinking and a systems engineering approach.

Dear colleagues, these choices will provide the answers to imminent questions for you, your careers, your colleagues, family and friends.

I have listed such questions. What topics and technologies can I work on and under what conditions? Engineers typically work on key emerging technologies that allow for dual use, are subject to foreign interference and touch upon the EU´s strategic assets and autonomy. The questions raised here are obviously not exhaustive and I am not going to read them all out to you.

But there is one which is particularly important to me as rector and president: Will publishing in open access journals have a negative impact on my scientific career? The answer to this question depends on many aspects, such as:

  • Does the leadership of your university modernise its research assessment systems away from publishing in high-impact journals towards a culture of quality, trust and risk-taking (my job as a rector)?
  • Does the funder of your grant go along with this and allows or even demands such publishing (the job of the Commission or national research council)?
  • Does the competent regional and national authority allow universities to determine their own career frameworks (the job of regional governments and the EU member states)?
  • Is the publishing industry ready and willing to switch business models (the job of business & industry)?
  • Does a not-for profit organisation such as the European Open Science Cloud Association provide for the framework in which you can store and process the corresponding scientific data and make these available along the FAIR-principles: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (the job of an NGO)?
  • And are you ready and willing to dare going open access (your job as an early stage researcher)?

This second example very well summarises that achieving the ERA looked at from any of the three perspectives I presented to you today, involves a broad array of societal players, including us scientists, engineers and university leaders.

I guess what I tried to do with this presentation is to tell you: The ERA concretely affects you as young scientists and as engineers.

That is why I encourage you to assume your societal responsibility, and help achieving the ERA and shaping knowledge-based societies for a sustainable future in Europe and beyond.

You will find us from Ghent University and from CESAER standing by your side.

Thank you very much for your attention!”

Request more information

If you want to know more about CESAER click on the button below.

Request more information here