European research

Historical​ context

​Although the Council of Europe (CoE), set up in 1949, had ‘the encouragement of cooperation in scientific affairs’ among its objectives, it has only played a marginal role in science and technology. The true origins of European cooperation in research lie in the 1950s as result of a convergence of the interests of two communities: on the one hand governments identified new energy sources as a strategic field for growth and competitiveness; on the other hand, the scientific community demanded support to rebuild itself after the war and compete with the emerging (scientific) superpowers. Thus supranational organisations were created reflecting these different interests, but at the same time containing 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 concerning competitiveness compared to the American and Japanese economies that the European politicians called for action: the European Commission (EC) of the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963 made the first recommendation on strengthening cooperation in the fields of science and technology. Altiero Spinelli, European Commissioner for Industrial Policy from 1970 to 1976, was a federalist and made a strong case for a European research cooperation and 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 launching its first seven actions in 1971. 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...

However, it took ten more years of accelerating globalisation before the First Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP1) from 1984 to 1987 was finally adopted in 1984. The thematic scope, budgets and duration of the subsequent framework programmes have steadily been increased, reflecting the ever-growing strategic importance science and technological development have acquired by today. The policy aims have shifted as well, from a purely competitiveness driven logic of research support to one that combines competitiveness with both purely curiosity driven research and research tackling societal challenges. The current Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020) is funded with €77 billion from 2014 to 2020. Moreover, these European Framework Programmes have become recognised research funding instruments with many non-EU states being highly interested in participating. The current Horizon 2020 thus encompasses also associated states like Norway, Turkey and Israel. Switzerland has expressed its will to get associated to Horizon 2020 but, following the adoption of the initiative against mass immigration on 9 February 2014, the negotiations towards an association have been suspended. Pending an association, Switzerland will have the status of third country. Up-to-date and detailed information on that matter can be found on th​e website of the  Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). SERI has confirmed that it will draw up an interim solution for the direct financing of researchers in Switzerland in partnerships and individual projects under Horizon 2020. ​


Horizon 2020 consist of three priorities, namely:

  1. 'Excellent Science' covering support for curisoty-driven blue sky research - i.e. European Research Council (ERC) and Future E​​merging Technologies (FET), research infrastructures as well as research careers and mobility through Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA);
  2. 'Industrial Leadership' providing support to industry and Small- and Medium Sized Enterprises (SME) in research and i​​nnovation activities, including instruments to foster development of enabling technologies as well as financial instruments (incorporating some parts of the former Competitiveness and Innovation Programme);
  3. 'Soci​​etal Challenges' supporting collaborative research projects that address seven specific societal challenges.


​​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).


... ​and a European Research Area (ERA)

Antonio Ruberti, European Commissioner for Science, Research, Technological Development and Education from 1993 to 1995, brought new impetus at that time by definitely 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’. Moreover, while a Commissioner, she was the main target in the fraud allegations that led to the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999. Subsequent to a fraud inquiry the European Commission said that Cresson in her capacity as the Research Commissioner "failed to act in response to known, serious and continuing irregularities over several years". Cresson was found guilty of not reporting failures in a youth training programme from which vast sums went missing.

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 then 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 OMC was not working and that the ‘coordination approach’ had failed. Based on this finding, the first and only truly communitarian​ research funding instrument – i.e. the ERC - was set up until its start in 2007. Moreover, the introduction of article 182.5 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU 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. CREST then 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.