Investing in European Innovation
A DISCUSSION OFFrom Strength to Strength?
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It’s not (just) the economy, stupid!
When Daniel Spichtinger writes, we pay attention. But after reading “From Strength to Strength?” (Issues, Summer 2022), we wondered whether his analysis of the problem was right. The article’s premise is that more money for research will ensure that Europe remains a science research superpower, which is why we chose to rewrite the famous political slogan from the Clinton era as our opening sentence. We think it is more complicated than just money. People are the most important resource in research, and as long as universities struggle to manage that resource responsibly, they are not getting any more of our hard-earned tax money.
Governments should be investing in well-functioning systems, but is academia such a system? Most people in academia who are not white, able-bodied, heterosexual men wouldn’t think so. Spichtinger refers to the renewal of the European Research Area (ERA). It’s interesting to notice that in this new ERA there is an increased focus on both diversity and culture. Why? Because research institutions are losing talent as they struggle to create inclusive research cultures. It is damaging not only to the reputation of universities when people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities experience fewer career opportunities and more harassment, and often leave academia. When research institutions don’t attract and retain the best talent, they don’t produce the best research. The responsibility of creating a research culture that is attractive to a diverse array of people lies with the universities and doesn’t require more money. The ERA plan just shows that too many universities don’t take action until pushed. Academia has known about this problem for years, and nothing has been done. The sector’s habit of pretending all is good until being forced to change is immature. This is not a responsible actor that should be sent more money, no matter how hard it lobbies.
And Spichtinger suggests more lobbying for more money for actors in research. But lobbying requires a coherent policy position that goes beyond send more money. It requires a well-defined place in society, where one takes responsibility, but Spichtinger’s article shows how large parts of academia appear to exist in a vacuum. Due to the legal aftermath of Brexit, the United Kingdom is not part of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s key funding program for research and innovation. Neither is Switzerland due to a wider diplomatic fall-out with the EU. Despite these severe legal disagreements, many universities in Europe have supported a campaign to include the research environments in the two countries in Horizon Europe. Why is research so precious that in this specific area there can be no consequences for Switzerland and the United Kingdom? Should nations be able to pick and choose which rules to follow?
We want to agree with Spichtinger. Europe should invest more in research. We just think that academia should do some serious soul-searching and develop mature and coherent policy positions internally and toward the world that it is part of. Scientific excellence begins with thriving researchers, and science is never conducted in a vacuum. Act accordingly, and we would be happy to see the research community receive the 3% investment of national gross domestic product in research that it seeks.
Jakob Feldtfos Christensen
Director of DIVERSIunity
Codirector of Cloud Chamber
Together they host the Diversity in Research Podcast
Daniel Spichtinger touches upon a number of important issues scrutinizing the European Union’s position of strength. With the overall geopolitical disruptions, the EU is facing two “fronts” in becoming a research and innovation powerhouse: one relates to the internal challenges of closing the research and innovation gap within the EU, while the other relates to its global role as a promoter of research cooperation.
Internally, the uneven capacities and investment intensities of its member states are posing a risk to an accelerated development and the attractiveness of the EU as a science location. A special report from the European Court of Auditorsconfirms the general suitability of the widening measures implemented in Horizon 2020, the EU’s major research and innovation program. Challenges remain, however, such as the timing of complementary funding, sustainability of financing, recruitment of international staff, exploitation of results, or imminent disparities among the EU’s 13 newest member states.
Within Horizon Europe (the successor to Horizon 2020), actions taken under the widening participation rubric include the development of new instruments such as Excellence Hubs and the Hop-On Facility, along with placing a stronger focus on synergies with the Cohesion Funds (e.g., via the Seal of Excellence and the transfer of funds from the European Regional Development Fund to Horizon Europe or the European Partnerships). Although these instruments are in place, it is the main responsibility of the EU member states to deliver on the proclaimed consensus to make research an investment priority, especially with the new inflation challenge and strain on national budget already looming. The value asserted to science is contested, and communication measures to strengthen trust in science may be as important as fiscal measures.
For the international research cooperation perspective, a certain ambiguity seems eminent. Europe’s expressed strategy for a global approach to research and innovation tries to strike a balance between reaffirming openness while stressing the importance of a level playing field, reciprocity, technological sovereignty, and respect for fundamental values in research and innovation such as academic freedom, ethics, integrity, and open science.
These values and principles are currently being discussed in a multilateral dialogue with international partner countries to foster a common understanding and their promotion in future cooperation settings. However, the consequences of being a “like-minded country” respecting those values and principles are not yet obvious, nor is the opposite. Currently, 14 of the 16 associated countries in Horizon 2020 have already been associated to Horizon Europe; further negotiations with Morocco, Canada, and New Zealand will take place in fall 2022, as will exploratory talks with South Korea and Japan. So far, the values and principles have played only a marginal role at best in these negotiations. The enormous pressure geopolitical developments can put on international research and innovation cooperation has, however, become clear in light of recent events. Here, Spichtinger rightly raises the question of whether it is helpful to “use science as a stick.” And indeed, one has to assess if all issues the EU faces with different countries—from Russia and Belarus to China, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland—are of the same nature and warrant the current measures taken.
If the European Union wants to become a respected promoter of international cooperation in research and innovation, it is vital that partner countries and their research, higher education, and innovation organizations perceive the EU as being ambitious, fair, and impartial in advocating mutual benefits in jointly facing global challenges. Noncooperation could otherwise prove quite costly for the EU research and innovation community.
Department of International Cooperation and Science Diplomacy
Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research