European research

Historical context

The Council of Europe (CoE), set up in 1949, had 'the encouragement of cooperation in scientific affairs' among its objectives, but it only played a marginal role in science and technology. The true origins of European cooperation in research lie in the 1950s, and are a result of a convergence of the interests of two communities: governments identified new energy sources as a strategic field for growth and competitiveness, and the scientific community demanded support to rebuild itself after the war and compete with the emerging (scientific) superpowers. Thus, intergovernmental organisations were created, which reflected these different interests and at the same time contained specific forms of support for scientific and technical development. The European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) are the most significant organisations that emerged out of that context.

By the 1960s, the European economy had fallen back so alarmingly compared to the American and Japanese economies that the European politicians called for action: in 1963, the European Commission (EC) of the then European Economic Community (EEC) made the first recommendation on strengthening cooperation in science and technology. Altiero Spinelli, European Commissioner for Industrial Policy from 1970 to 1976, made a strong case for a European research cooperation and for centralised and supranational European research funding instruments. In 1970, a permanent committee called European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) was established as an intergovernmental organisation including non-EEC member states, and launched its first seven actions a year after. In 1973, the European Commissioner for Research, Ralf Dahrendorf, proposed the first integrated work programme covering activities from education to research in all sectors. Dahrendorf proposed a 'European Scientific Area' allowing for more mobility of researchers, facilitating international contacts, creating a register of laboratories and research infrastructures and setting up a European scientific foundation. Contrary to Spinelli however, Dahrendorf only believed in the coordination of national research activities. His programme led to four Council resolutions on 14 January 1974, setting up the European Science Foundation  (ESF), the Scientific and Technical Research Committee (CREST) and for the first time an integrated research programme.


Towards European Framework Programmes

It took ten more years of accelerating globalisation before the First Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP1)(1984 to 1987) was finally adopted in 1984. The thematic scope, budgets and duration of the subsequent framework programmes have steadily increased, reflecting the ever-growing strategic importance of science and technological development. The policy aims have shifted as well, from a purely competitiveness driven logic of research support to one that combines competitiveness with both curiosity driven research and research tackling societal challenges. The last Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020) was funded with €77 billion from 2014 to 2020. Moreover, the European Framework Programmes have become recognised research funding instruments and spiked the interest of many non-EU states. Horizon 2020 thus encompasses also associated states like Norway, Turkey, Israel and Switzerland. While the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) is responsible for the overall coordination, design, monitoring and evaluation of Horizon 2020, the implementation lies with specialised agencies, notably the Research Executive Agency (REA) and the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA).

The next Framework Programme, Horizon Europe is awaiting its formal adoption in spring 2021 and will run from 2021-2027. Like its predecessor, it will be open to international cooperation. 


European Research Area (ERA)

Antonio Ruberti, European Commissioner for Science, Research, Technological Development and Education from 1993 to 1995, brought new impetus by steering European research away from supranational cooperation towards coordination of national research activities. His successor Edith Cresson determined the modern logic of discourse of 'innovation and training'.

To ensure that the coordination of national, international and supranational efforts have sustainable structural effects on the European research landscape, the concept of the European Research Area (ERA) was re-launched in 2000 by the European Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin. It was defined in terms of a 'single market' for research and researchers across Europe, and was completely based on the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) along the lines from Dahrendorf and Ruberti. Research and innovation thus became a central element on the Lisbon-strategy.

But, the former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok with his mid-term evaluation of the Lisbon-strategy in 2005 proofed that the OMC was not working and that the 'coordination approach' had failed. Based on this, the first and only truly communitarian research funding instrument – i.e. the ERC- was set up in 2007. Moreover, the introduction of article 182.5 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) authorised the EC to take "the measures necessary for the implementation of the ERA" and thus de jure made research a shared competence between the EU and its member states. The former CREST was renamed European Research and Innovation Area Committee (ERAC), the 'single market for research' became the 'Fifth Freedom of the Movement of Knowledge' and the Ljubljana Process directed towards fully realising the ERA by 2014 was launched in 2009. There are still many remaining barriers to this fifth freedom and the ERA is still far from being realised despite efforts and progress over last years.


Efforts of reviving the ERA were started by the new Commission under Ursula von der Leyen in 2020 with a plan for relaunching the ERA. ​