Science in Europe can be more than the sum of its parts

17 maart 2016

It is well over four decades ago that I seized the opportunity to participate in the Summer Student programme of CERN, the European centre for particle physics. At the age of 21 I entered an amazing new world. I had access to advanced lectures by internationally leading scientists; I made my first steps as a researcher under inspiring supervision; and I shared in the excitement of exploring uncharted scientific territory. CERN was, already then – barely 17 years after its foundation – a world leading accelerator centre. Its many achievements were recently crowned by the discovery of the Higgs-boson, presented to the world mid-2012, with, I am sure, more to follow! CERN is the world leader in its field now.

I have often wondered whether my ‘natural’ support for European cooperation is founded on that early experience. I experienced what Europe is capable of if its nations set themselves a common goal and ‘go for it’ wholeheartedly. I have seen that the European cultural diversity and differences (all stereotypes are true!) are an asset if brought together in common projects, not an obstacle. The condition is that these projects have a leadership that is selected on competence, not on nationality, and that the governance is built on trust.

The mission of CERN is to perform excellent research at the knowledge frontier, and its mission is to enable that research through developing the technology for pushing back that frontier. Its mission is also: international cooperation, between the member states and beyond. That latter part of its mission, international cooperation, is very successful: with countries behind the ‘iron curtain’, well before that curtain fell; with Eastern European countries well before they joined the EU; and with the USA, Russia, Japan, India and Arab countries. Scientific cooperation with ambitious goals ‘overrides’ political differences and forms an excellent basis for ‘getting to know each other’ and for further cooperation.

I realize that ‘the CERN model’ is the exception rather than the rule for successfully positioning European science in a global context. Cynics might even say that such a commitment of the member states was only possible in the post-war setting of the early 1950’s. However, I consider this as an example for the European Research Area that the European Commission and organizations like Science Europe are trying to build. The European Research Council and the framework programmes are a success. The ‘self-coordination’ of European research organisations within Science Europe is promising. But for Europe to face the ‘grand challenges’, to keep up with the USA, to be a serious partner for China, to work effectively with other emerging nations… much, much more is required! More in terms of resources at the central European level, more in terms of resources at the national level in most member states (including the Netherlands!), more in terms of a common strategy and more in terms of governance with a strong voice for the scientific community (the CERN Council is composed of scientists and governmental representatives on a 50-50 basis).

The European Union, has many successes to celebrate, but it seems to be in need of new energy. The only way forward for its member states is to consolidate and strengthen cooperation, not to weaken it in view of national political (short term) successes. Let scientific cooperation, based on a shared vision between the Commission and Science Europe, become a truly high priority area for Europe. The success of that cooperation will help further political integration, the only way forward for Europe, but so much more difficult to achieve.

Jos Engelen
Chair Governing Board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research

More information
Website: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
Website: Science Europe

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