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February 10, 2011

Europe: A soupçon of Joint Programming in the Coordination Soup

It is somewhat paradoxical that, just as the European Commission is striving to simplify access to European research programmes, Europe's research landscape is growing ever more complicated. This is a central question both for the Commission’s green paper on Research and Innovation and the next European Association of Research Managers and Administrators event in Brussels on March 2. Why has this complexity arisen, and what can be done about it?

In the early 50s all that existed was Cern. Research was not even considered properly at European level until the mid-70s. Now research, innovation and the links between them have central importance in propelling the new Innovation Union agenda.

One effect of this welcome transition is that European initiatives and programmes have proliferated. Though many are positive developments, offering researchers new opportunities to fund their ideas, just listing current initiatives, even excluding Euratom and Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP), shows how complicated the landscape has become (see table below). Some are either similar to or originate from the same action and do not always offer direct funding for researchers—for example ERA-Nets and Knowledge Innovation Programmes. Many actions serve distinct and useful purposes, but it’s still useful to ask whether we could rationalise and coordinate these different instruments.

This seems crucial if Europe is to achieve the aims of "Europe 2020", a fact acknowledged in yesterday's Green Paper: "Over time, EU research and innovation programmes have expanded the set of instruments leaving an impression of catering to too many objectives and spreading funding too thinly. The lack of coordination between Union and Member State programmes adds to this."

And yet, says the same paper: "The EU's current funding programmes, in particular the 7th research Framework Programme (FP7) and Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP), aim to integrate and structure the European research and innovation landscape." How can we do this in FP8 when the tendency is to create ever new initiatives, exemplified by the Innovation Union proposal to create "European Innovation Partnerships"?

To make sense of all of this, it is helpful to trace the very different developments of "Joint Programming Initiatives" (JPI) and "Article 185 Joint Programmes". The European Commission's "Joint Programming" project, launched in 2008, aimed to pool disparate and fragmented national funding and to address the ‘big issues’ requiring critical mass solutions at European, even global level.

This process ultimately led to the JPI. Similarly-named to the Article 185 "Joint Programmes", they combine a strategic framework, a bottom-up approach and high-level commitment from Member States and build on the experience gained from existing schemes coordinating national programmes. The High Level Group on Joint Programming (GPC) identified the following areas suitable for joint programming: agriculture, food security and climate change; cultural heritage and global change—a new challenge for europe; and a healthy diet for a healthy life. They were adopted in October 2010, after a pilot JPI in neurodegenerative diseases begun in December 2009. Other areas being considered include: the microbial challenge; climate knowledge; demographic change; urban europe; water challenges; and seas and oceans.

This top-down identification of topics by an expert group is somewhat different to the approach taken by ERA Nets, some of which spawn the "Article 185" joint programmes (JP), which involve the joint implementation of some national R&D programmes. However, there are currently over 130 ERA nets and only four JP: ambient assisted living (AAL), for the elderly; Bonus, in Baltic Sea research; EMRP, on metrology; Eurostars, for research among SMEs and their partners.

Both JPI and Article 185 JP build upon national programmes. However, ERA-Nets, the fore-runners of JP, largely involve cooperation of national funding agencies at the first stage. In contrast, JPI look to identify strategic agendas and then to bring in funding agencies at a later stage, a subtle but important difference.

Despite these important differences, there is at least some potential for duplication and fragmentation of effort could easily arise. For instance, even If one accepts that the aims and coverage of the JP AAL is ultimately very different from the JPI "Better Lives, Longer Lives", there must surely be scope for ensuring that their outputs are complementary. Adopting one form of methodology and a common set of rules would not only increase researcher access but allow for greater simplification. After all, ERA-Nets, JP and JPI share the ultimate aim of better coordinating and overcoming fragmentation of European research.

Yet this is going to be difficult to achieve particularly as the relevant policies will be driven by national concerns. Still more problematic would be any attempt to link these with Joint Technology Initiatives. True, it will be easier to avoid duplication since JTI have a clear emphasise on industrial participation and key enabling technologies. Nevertheless, even here some form of coordination is needed if the desired improved link between research and innovation is to be achieved. Similarly, ERC Grants and Marie Curie networks also have distinct aims and are real success stories. Yet both programmes have important lessons for the other: ERC Grants with their emphasis on excellence and the other with the emphasis on training and mobility. Extending excellence grants to include networks with some mobility and training elements might also yield excellent projects.

One should remember that many of the instruments mentioned already work well and indeed it can often be preferable from a researcher’s viewpoint to apply under a national set of rules for a European network. But individual researcher’s quite rightly only have the goal of gaining funding using the easiest and shortest path. Researchers cannot necessarily be expected to have an interest in policy goals at the macro level. Furthermore, the ‘buy in’ approach at national level necessarily means that some excellent research is excluded by researchers located in countries that do not participate in a particular scheme. This is counter to the notion that excellent research should be funded wherever it is located, an admirable ethos of the European Research Council.

Finding a solution to all of these issues will largely determine the success of European research policy. The possible solution to this ‘patchwork quilt’ of European funding initiatives, proposed by the Commission in its recent Green Paper is to develop a "Common Strategic Framework" for EU Research and Innovation funding. Will it succeed? Watch this space.

Table for Lauder piece

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