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‘ERA should improve career prospects for researchers’

9 februari 2012

On the 30th of January the European Commission organized a wrap up event about the European Research Area (ERA) Framework consultation. On this occasion Neth-ER spoke to Mr. James Gavigan, head of unit ERA Policy at DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

What is the general message that the EC received from the ERA Framework consultation?

Overall, there is overwhelming support for reinforcing efforts to complete the European Research Area and for action on all ERA dimensions. The responses stress researcher-related problems, cross-border collaboration, international cooperation, as well as open access to publications and data as priorities that deserve particular attention. The issue of research careers and mobility is regarded as the most important area in which the EU should step up its efforts most urgently. It is followed by problems relating to research infrastructures, knowledge transfer and cross border collaboration.  

The global attractiveness of Europe as a scientific and technological location for researchers, companies and investment could be increased by reducing the fragmentation of the European market and by improving employment and career prospects for researchers in the EU. It is also necessary to coordinate research at transnational level to raise research quality, reduce costs and tackle global challenges, respondents said. A broad majority of respondents consider that a higher involvement of women in science will contribute to European socio-economic growth.

The consultation also confirmed that we need a strengthened overall process of partnership and governance if we are aiming at the high level of ambition for ERA as called for by the Heads of State to "complete ERA by 2014". The consultation indicates for example that respondents feel that the achievement of ERA needs a strengthened political commitment, both at national and EU level, going beyond 2014. Realistic targets and common indicators are considered necessary to improve the evaluation and monitoring of ERA initiatives.

The need for closer cooperation and coordination in policy development and implementation of ERA comes out clearly as well. Closely related, there is a plea for more synergies and increased coordination between European and national/regional research agendas and programmes. More and better information, simplification and transparency about ERA instruments and initiatives are also called for. Finally, to ensure efficient policy options, acceptance and ownership of policies agreed at EU level there is also widespread support for higher participation of main research stakeholders in ERA processes beyond national administrations.  

What is in your opinion the most surprising outcome of the ERA Framework consultation?

I must admit that the turn-up with over 400 participations at our closing conference on 30 January, which was hit by a general strike in Belgium and sudden winter weather, was beyond expectations. The conference also confirmed a common sense of urgency to complete ERA, and the contribution of this to the EU´s growth agenda as highlighted by Commissioner Olli Rehn who closed the conference.  But concerning the consultation itself, the expectations at the start of the consultation were rather high, as the Commissioner wanted it to be as broad and inclusive as possible. Given the relatively recent consultation on the CSF/Horizon 2020, there was of course a certain risk of "consultation fatigue" or even confusion within the research community.

However, the response has been rather good, with 590 responses to the on-line questionnaire as well as 101 position papers received from national and European research actors. Together, they give a very good idea of what researchers and organisations expect from ERA, what obstacles they continue to face and what still needs to be done to move ERA from politics to practice, cashing in on more than a decade of progress.

The ERA Framework is a policy instrument. In the end, researchers are the key players in the ERA. What will be the advantage of an ERA Framework for the end user – the individual researcher?

This depends of course on the final content of the ERA Framework and its measures, which still need to be decided. But it is clear that the ERA Framework should improve employment and career prospects for researchers in the EU, together with other measures recently proposed or still in the pipeline.

Concretely, the lack of open and transparent recruitment and the lack of portability of grants are two issues we are looking into. These are regarded as main barriers to internationally-mobile researchers, according to the consultation. It is rather surprising and worrying to see that protectionism/nepotism is considered by 85% of the respondents to be the main reason, followed by the lack of a human resources strategy in institutions (77%).

Secondly, the measures we are considering to improve the conditions for cross-border research will also improve the career prospects for the most talented researchers, as they will escape from the limitations which are inherent to any national research system. For example, during the conference there was broad support for a European wide system of international peer review among funding agencies to raise excellence, efficiency and transparency.

In the EC Work Programme 2012 it is not clear whether the ERA Framework should be a legislative or non-legislative instrument. What can you say about the legislative status of the upcoming proposal?

The Commissioner has made a clear statement on the Commission´s line in her opening address to the ERA conference. She indicated that when thinking about how important ERA is, what is at stake, and the track record of modest achievement so far, the case for legislation, using the new Treaty provisions, is compelling. But given the urgency of the situation, given the growth emergency that we are facing, and the long time to get any legislation adopted, transposed and implemented, it is a risk she did not want to take. But we will not revert to business as usual, but open an entirely new chapter in the ERA-partnership. The Communication in June will identify a small number of ‘big ticket’ items which are crucial for achieving ERA and which will make the biggest impact on the economy.

The new ERA-partnership will be broader, with a stronger role for stakeholders, and the intention is to invite representatives of the major research stakeholders – both those who fund and those who do the research - to sign up to a joint commitment with the Commission to deliver on the main priority measures in the ERA Framework.

These so-called "ERA-Pacts" should not be empty declarations of intentions. Each one will contain a clear roadmap, based on common objectives, with precise, realistic deliverables for research actors and for the Commission, and clear deadlines for achieving them.  In addition, the ERA Framework will be accompanied and announce a number of recommendations to the member states in areas where national governments have a primary role to play, and an overall framework to evaluate the progress achieved.

The Pacts would ideally be signed as soon as the Commission adopts the ERA Framework, by the middle of this year. By the end of 2013, there will be a thorough and honest stock take of progress. If progress is insufficient, the Commissioner will not hesitate to recommend to her successor that he or she should make use of the new Treaty provisions to propose legislation.

What is, in short, the timetable for the EC on the preparation of the Framework proposal?

We are aiming to have the ERA Framework Communication adopted by the Commission by the middle of this year. It will depend of course on how quickly we can proceed through the Impact Assessment and interservice-consultation.

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