A Challenge for the EU

Science  01 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5633, pp. 565
DOI: 10.1126/science.301.5633.565

In March 2000, European heads of governments and of states agreed in Lisbon that by 2010, the European Union (EU) should become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”* To implement this objective, they agreed in Barcelona in 2002 to devote 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 to R&D and to foster common science policies in a “European Research Area,” as proposed by EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin. To meet these ambitious goals, the EU countries need to move beyond rhetoric and commit to substantial increases in their R&D spending.

Several reports released in 2003 by the European Commission (the political and administrative arm of the EU) indicate that the EU countries invest much less in research than the United States or Japan (1.9% of GDP, compared with 2.8% for the United States and 3.0% for Japan in 2000). Furthermore, although the EU countries produce the highest number of science graduates and postgraduates (2.14 million graduates in 2000, compared with 2.07 million in the United States) and publish more scientific papers (37% of global scientific papers, compared with 31% for the United States and 10% for Japan), they employ fewer researchers than the United States or Japan (5.4 researchers per 1000 workers, compared with 8.7 in the United States and 9.7 in Japan).

In a recent action plan, the European Commission sets out how the EU can bridge the growing gap in research investment between Europe and the United States. According to the plan, a research investment of 3% of GDP would result in ∼0.5% of additional growth and 400,000 additional jobs every year after 2010. To reach this level of investment, the European research effort will have to grow by 8% per year; business funding for R&D will have to increase more (9%) than public funding (6%), because it lags far behind in most countries. Given the present trend in public budgets in Europe, these targets are very ambitious.

To facilitate the 8% growth and better integrate and coordinate research activities, the EU aims to create a European Research Area, which would increase the efficiency and competitiveness of European research by avoiding dispersion of funding on subcritical programs. By pooling national and EU resources—such as those of the present Framework Program for R&D (3.5 billion euros per year)—the European Research Area could fund joint research programs, build and operate common research facilities (such as new x-ray sources), and promote the mobility of researchers across Europe. Furthermore, the creation of a European Research Council has been proposed by European scientists and is supported by heads of research organizations and the European Science Foundation.§ The council would encompass all disciplines and complement national agencies and the Framework Program. It would, for example, provide grants and fellowships for individual researchers and groups, thereby facilitating better use of European research facilities. In the long term, the council could establish leading-edge research centers. Governments await a report on this proposal from a panel of science policy-makers chaired by Federico Mayor, former director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and aim to make a decision in 2004.

Additional funding is needed to meet these objectives and to support projects from young scientists. This can only be achieved if scientists apply strong pressure on EU governments. A complication, and a challenge, arises from the fact that at least 10 new countries will soon join the EU. Most of these countries have an old scientific tradition, but their scientific infrastructures must be renewed. Furthermore, public spending in EU countries is under severe constraints, because budget deficits must not exceed 3% of GDP. Governments and the European Commission have recently suggested that public investments for research and defense should be excluded from this 3% limit.

Increased R&D is crucial for the future economic and social well-being of Europe. The commitment to increased public and private investment in research should be implemented soon by all EU countries. Several countries, including Sweden and Finland, have already met the Barcelona objective, but others are far from reaching it. This year, France even reduced public support for research and recruitment of researchers. We also have to move beyond rhetoric to implement the European Research Area. The draft European constitution defines research and technological development as a shared prerogative between individual countries and the EU. This is a positive step, but all these ambitious objectives require a strong political will, which has yet to be demonstrated by governments all over Europe.

  • *Lisbon European Council Presidency Conclusions (March 2000); see http://europa.eu.int/european_council/index_en.htm

  • †European Commission, Third European Report on Science and Technology Indicators 2003 (European Commission, Brussels, 2003); see www.cordis.lu/indicators

  • Investing in Research: An Action Plan for Europe (European Commission, Brussels, 30 April 2003).

  • §New Structures for the Support of High-Quality Research in Europe (European Science Foundation, Strasbourg, April 2003).

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