Intervenções Públicas


"European research networks: time to rethink their rationale and governance?"


Keynote speech of Maria da Graca Carvalho at the Prime Conference "European research networks: time to rethink their rationale and governance?"


1. Introduction

  • Thank you for inviting me to this very interesting and important event. As some of you know, I was formerly Principal Adviser at the Office of the Political Advisers of the President of the European Commission and now I am Member of the European Parliament.
  • In both cases, I had the possibility to deal with the issues you are discussing here, and I am very much glad to share my thoughts and experiences as a policy maker in the design of European research networks.
  • As all today agree, their role in facing the many challenges ahead is fundamental; on the other hand, this holds the consequence that, probably, the time has come to rethink the rationale and governance. And, indeed, this is the very appropriate title of this event.

2. The traditional role of policy making in designing research networks

  •  During the last decades the main focus of policy makers in designing research networks was twofold.
  • On the one hand, to foster excellence, actions were designed to support transnational cooperation between scientists. The idea was that the lack of critical mass at the local level could have been compensated allowing researchers to work together, regardless their physical collocation.
  • On the other, to support technology transfer from research to industry, companies were involved in these research cooperations in the logic of demonstration and commercial take up. The idea was of innovation as a linear process in which researchers demonstrate the value of their findings and companies transform these findings in commercial opportunities.
  • To do so, the main tool has been the support to the creation of research networks where scientists could compete and cooperate regardless of borders between countries, disciplines, organizations and sectors (private or public).
  • The European Union has mainstreamed this objective in its main funding programmes, particularly the 7th Framework Programme for Research, but also the structural and cohesion funds, and the Lifelong Learning Programme.
  • Through the Structural Funds, an increasing amount of resources are dedicated to capacity building especially in less R&D intensive regions. The aim is to allow each knowledge player to develop the needed skills and infrastructure to be able to compete and collaborate at a European level.
  • On the Education side, the Life Long Learning programme aims to foster interaction, cooperation and mobility between education and training systems within the Community, so that they become a world quality reference.
  • Finally, the well known Framework Programme has been funding cooperative research across Europe, allowing the creation of networks of researchers and research organizations to pool together resources that would be otherwise fragmented. These networks had the goal to integrate research efforts or to promote the development and demonstration of new technologies.
  • But today we face new challenges that are requiring us to bring these instruments a step forward to realize the vision of the fifth freedom. Let me outline some of these and then propose you some reflections on how these are challenging the shape and governance of research networks the way we know them. Last but not least, I will outline how, in my opinion, these evolution requires policy makers to change their way to design and support the creation of research networks.

3. Today's challenges

3.1 Lack of funding

  • First of all, it is clear that in the EU exists an R&D funding gap when compared with US, South Korea or Japan. While the US devote nearly 2.7% of GDP to R&D, Europe spends just 1.9%. The situation is also very diverse inside the European Union with Sweden investing more than 4% of GDP and several countries, like Portugal, Greece and several of the new Member States investing less than 1% of GDP in R&D. 
  • In Higher Education, the European Union invests in average 1,1% of GDP, a figure much lower than the one for the US (2,7%) or South Korea (2,7%) or Canada (2,5%) . In average The American Universities invest per student 2 to 5 times than the European Universities. 
  • The first challenge of for research networks is thus to rise the level of investment in research and education. In this context the European Commission has defined as a target to invest 2% of GDP in Higher Education by 2014 and 3% of GDP in Research by 2010.

 3.2 No private sector involvement and lack of commercial exploitation

  • But these gaps hyde another important challenge. In fact, what is rather telling is that the lack of funding is not due to a lack of public resources. Rather, they are mainly rooted in the lack of private R&D investment that counts for almost all the difference. 
  • This is true both in absolute terms, but also in relative ones as the private sector investment in public research and Higher Education is much lower than in other world regions. For example, while the contribution from the public sector in Higher Education is almost the same in the European Union and US, around 1% of GDP, the contribution coming from the private sector to higher education is seven times higher in the US than in Europe.  
  • This lack of trust of the private sector in research in general, and in public research in particular, mirrors a poor capacity of public research organizations to establish structured collaborations with companies as well as to transform research outcomes in economic or social value.  
  • And here lies our second challenge that research networks are facing. The need to boost the private sector involvement in funding research and to improve the capacity of research institutions to transform research outcomes in commercial value. 

3.3 Lack of excellence

  • In this sense, some have claimed that there is a European paradox whereby Europe performs excellent research but there are barriers to transfer it to the market.  
  • But the main figures tell us that the EU has lost ground also in terms of scientific excellence. Whatever the indicator or source of data we look at, when compared to our main global competitors, we always notice a similar trend. European universities perform well both in world rankings and citation indexes. However, they are under represented in the top layer of the research and education league table. While in the top 500 universities near half are European, when looking at the first 10 just two are from the union, and both from the same member state. European Universities are good in average but they are very fragmented lacking critical mass to compete at global level.  
  • This is for research networks the third challenge. To boost together commercial exploitation and scientific excellence.

4.4 Societal challenges

  • More recently, some new challenges have made the case for the need to support a better contribution of research to society even bolder.
  • If traditional challenges were demanding us to invest in research to be more competitive, the new ones are demanding us to do so also in order to preserve our society the way we know it. Let me quote just two of them.
  • First of all, climate change. If we don't act promptly and boldly, we might soon live in a society that is quite different from the one that we know. As an increasing number of scientists are telling us, climate changes may provoke unpredictable disasters and a dramatic alteration of our environment. And of course, these will produce dramatic effects on our social and economic life.
  • Second, the recent economic and financial crisis can be expected to have profound economic, political and social consequences. The latest economic forecasts painted a bleak picture in terms of growth and employment.
  • In the context of these challenges, policy makers and, I would say, the same stakeholders, have started a process of experimentation to rethink the rationale and shape of European research networks. At his stage, these experiments are still in an exploratory phase but, I believe, we can already draw some of the major trends that will shape the design of research networks in the future.

5. Main developments in the design of research networks

5.1 The goals of research endeavors: from projects, to programmes, to grand challenges

  • A first recent growing trend is the one to broaden the scope and heterogeneity of a research and technological endeavor. Traditionally, the funding of research networks was oriented towards projects, whereby teams of individuals and organizations where asked to develop a particular technology, often in the form of a demonstrator. Connected to this, the usual life span of a research network was rather short termed and it pulled together a limited number of organizations.
  • Following the experience of, for example, the Technology Platforms, with the Joint Technology Initiatives we started to broaden these boundaries. These initiatives are now asked to define and implement a research and technology programme which encompasses several technologies and their interdependancies. Related to this, the time frame and the scale of the partnership involved grew significantly.
  • A step further has been, with the EIT, to move such a line from programmes to grand challenges such as climate change. I would say that, in this case, the teams and organizations involved have the goal to address a long term vision which encompasses issues that go beyond technology to out reach also the market, the environment and society in general, and which are interdisciplinary in nature.
  • In this sense, we might expect that the investment in knowledge will be increasingly targeted to partnerships that focus on grand challenges, pooling together the wide spectrum of research, education, business and government actors which are needed to cover the needed range of skills and prerogatives.
  • But this also brings a major consequence. While we used to evaluate the outcome of a research network in terms of the immediate technology developed, we will increasingly move this line towards innovation; that is, the capacity to generate a tangible social and economic benefit.

5.2 The governance of research: towards stake holders delegation and joint programming

  • A second trend derives as a consequence from the previous. In fact, the move from projects to grand challenges implies also that the scale and scope of resources needed will dramatically increase.
  • In this context, an ambitious new approach for making better use of Europe's limited public R&D funds is through enhanced cooperation using "joint programming". Countering the compartmentalization of the ERA in 27+1 research areas would increase the impact of public investment in R&D. In the EU, joint programming counts for only 10 to 15% of public R&D funding, whereas in the US it counts for about 85-90%.
  • Joint Programming gives Member States a greater role. They should engage voluntarily and on the basis of a variable geometry in the definition, development and implementation of common strategic research agendas based on a common vision on how to address major societal challenges.
  • In this sense, we might expect the improvement and creation of dedicated structures and schemes to support the pooling of resources Europe wide, and a governance of the European research landscape increasingly organized around bottom-up partnerships of member states and knowledge players.
  • In the same logic, another interesting trend in the governance of research collaborations is the increasing delegation to stakeholders of the definition of research priorities and their implementation.
  • Take the ERC for example. 7 billion Euros of community funds are delegated to an autonomous scientific council which sets the priorities and decides on the allocation of funds to promote investigator driven research. In the JTIs, a significant amount of resources are managed by industry, together with research organizations the Commission and Member States to promote industry driven research. And finally in the EIT, resources are managed by an autonomous governing body of 18 high level personalities of the European knowledge landscape to address major societal challenges.
  • Following this trend, we might expect that an increasing proportion of resources will be prioritized and managed by the same stakeholders who have a deeper understanding of the research challenges and, thus, can ensure a more effective and targeted allocation of research funds. My understanding is that research networks will become increasingly autonomous and, to achieve their tasks, more institutionalized.

5.3 Institutional modernization and reform

  •   A third trend which has been emerging and receiving a greater attention during the last years is that of institutional modernization.
  • A growing number of voices are claiming that many of the goals we set to create effective European research collaborations require to reform the way in which knowledge institutions work. A network is made of organizations, and its performance depends also on the institutional format of those. Among these, for the pivotal role they play in the European knowledge landscape, Universities.
  • Take mobility for example. It's rather clear that to foster transnational mobility universities have to accept a greater level of competition for talents; and not to be losers in this competition, they have to improve, for example, the career prospects of academic staff or the transparency of recruitment.
  • But the same goes for a better interaction between the academic and business world. If we want researchers to be involved in business experiences these should be somehow recognized as a valuable asset in their CVs. And to increase the capacity of research organizations to address relevant social and economic concerns, representatives from the business and social world should be involved in the governance bodies of the institutions.
  • Addressing the funding gap of universities would lead us to similar conclusions. If we look at the composition of the funding sources, we all know that the missing contributor to the funding of universities is the private sector. And given the current budgetary constraints in public finances, such a gap cannot be plausibly filled by tax payers money; this bears a simple message, although rich of implications: if European universities want more resources, they need to attract them from the private sector.
  • But the private sector will, obviously, give money only if they can buy a better product. They will invest in training if they can access a reliable source of employable students with the right skills. They will invest in research if they can count on teams of researchers committed in delivering value and not just publications.
  • Such an awareness has put the issue of institutional modernization at the center of the debate and has been increasingly recognized at the highest political level. Starting from the informal summit at Hampton Court in 2005, to the following Council conclusions, the heads of states have frequently underlined the need to modernize universities.
  • In this context, many reforms processes have started at the Member States level, also promoted by the Commission with its Modernization Agenda. Reforms have been set at both the Governance and the Curricula levels and we might expect that these will continue in the coming years.
  • Along these lines, we might expect that policy makers will have to support not just the evolution of research networks but also, in parallel, the institutional modernization of the participating organizations.
  • In the case of universities, we might expect a more diversified university system, in which some opt to play at the global level while others will focus more on the needs of the territory. Universities will be more autonomous and more accountable at the same time, will set up internal governance systems involving external stake holders and based on strategic priorities and the professional management of human resources. These reforms will require universities to diversify their sources of funding, with a special focus on the capacity to attract private resources. Further, these reforms will compel universities to overcome their fragmentation into faculties, departments, laboratories and administrative units and target their efforts collectively on institutional priorities for research, teaching and services. Traditional notions of collegiality and consensus-based decision-making will be increasingly under pressure, giving way to a more managerial style of leadership.

5.4 The departure from traditional collaborative networks

  • Finally a fourth major trend is the move from traditional collaboration networks to either the funding of teams to foster excellence, or to the funding of large integrated partnerships which are more focused on innovation. Traditionally, Community research and innovation policy has focused on addressing the "fragmentation" of the European research and innovation system by promoting transnational collaboration networks. These took traditionally the form of flat networks organized around projects either more focused on research, such as in the case of Networks of Excellence, or technological development, such as in the case of Integrated Projects.
  • But from 1990-2006 figures show a clear trend towards intensified international scientific collaboration, with the number of joint research publications growing four times faster than single country publications and with extra and intra EU collaboration growing at similar fast rates.
  • Dedicated support for transnational collaboration networks may therefore not be needed to the same extent as in the past. On the other hand, evidence suggests that sub-criticality may be a more significant factor at the level of the institution than at the level of the research group. It has been show that, while the productivity of research doesn't increase when the size of the research group overcomes few units, it increases when the size of the institution grows thanks to economies of scope.
  • This consideration has led to two distinct trends that I believe particularly relevant as they represent a departure from traditional collaborative networks.

5.4.1 Competitive funding for small teams of researchers

  • At the research level, the ERC witnesses a move towards funding individuals or teams of researchers rather than collaborative networks. Furthermore, it witnesses a move to evaluate research outcomes on the base of their excellence.
  • This circumstance has to be read in conjunction with the growing awareness that there is no "European paradox"; this assumed that European academic research was world class but was not translated into new technologies, products and services because of the poor linkages between science and the business world. It is now accepted that there is a clear gap between the best European and US academic research.
  • In this sense the poor productivity of research, especially at the top of the world rankings, is not attributed to the sub-critical size of the teams but rather to the criteria through which research is funded and evaluated. In this direction, we might expected that an increasing proportion of research funds will be allocated to individuals and small teams by autonomous agencies on a purely competitive basis.
  • Or, as many have proposed, that institutions like the ERC will play an increasing role in pooling "peer reviewing" resources which can be used by other regional or national funding bodies to ensure the highest evaluation standards.

5.4.2 Institutional funding for modernization and consolidation

  • On the other hand, the idea that research performance depends on the size and, let me add, the dynamism of an institution may lead in the future, to institutional funding to support the modernization and consolidation between universities and research organizations.
  • At the European level, initiatives such as the JTIs or the EIT are going in the direction to reach a deeper level of integration between knowledge players. These partnerships are going beyond the traditional concept of collaborative networks, creating governance structures and processes to ensure a tighter integration between institutions and more effective decision making.
  • More evident is the same process at the Member states level. Similarly to what happened in the financial sector in the 90s with the conglomeration of banks, governments try to overcome the excessive fragmentation of the European HE landscape by supporting the integration and merger of research and education institutions. Beyond fragmentation, the rationale is to stimulate research excellence, education and innovation capacity. To achieve these goals, these new knowledge conglomerates are encouraged by national governments to modernize their structures in exchange for additional resources.
  • For example in Germany, the federal and state governments agreed on the so called Excellence Initiative in 2005. Altogether, €1.900 million of additional funds will be distributed over five years, most of it coming from the federal government. Among various goals, the initiative aims at developing clusters of excellence to enable German universities to establish internationally visible and competitive research and training facilities. Universities should also create excellent training and career conditions for young researchers. In addition, the Excellence Initiative provides funding for institutional strategies that are aimed at developing top-level research and encouraging the cooperation of universities with non-university research institutions. For example, one of your members is co founder of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) which stems by the merge between the University of Karlsruhe with the Research Centre of Karlsruhe. KIT will have 8000 employees and an annual budget of € 700 million .
  • Similar initiatives are ongoing in Finland and France. In France, in the context of a more general reform, the government has launched the programme CAMPUS in March 2008; this initiative provides extra funding to the top 10 proposals from universities that create local agglomerates and MIT-style campuses. The rationale is not only to provide students and researchers with better infrastructure and a campus lifestyle, but also to improve the scientific and education capacity of the institutions concerned. It is a fact that the selection of applications has been based on the scientific and educational goal of the project, evaluated according to international standards. Among the 10 selected proposals, the Grenoble University of Innovation pulls together 4 universities, a school of management and 3 local branches of national research centres. In total, the 10 selected projects involve 39 universities, 37 schools, all the main French research organizations, 650.000 students and 21.000 researchers. The projects benefit from a substantial state support (€ 5 billion ).
  • In Finland, a university of innovation, called Aalto University has been created through a merger of the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design. The authority and responsibilities of the current universities will be transferred under the Aalto University Foundation on 1 January 2010. This foundation has a basic capital of € 280 million donated by some of the founders, to which the Finnish Government will contribute € 200 million and the remaining founders € 80 million .
  • These developments can be noticed at the EU level: networks of universities are considering or already implementing the integration of their operations without government support. In this direction, we might expect in the future initiatives that promote the consolidation and institutional modernization of universities and research organizations which may scale up from the local to the European level, through the creation of EU level poles of excellence.

6. Conclusions

  • Ladies and Gentleman. To conclude let me summarize some key messages.
  • Thanks to our effort to support collaborative research we can say that, today, European researchers trust each other and, to a certain extend, are able to work with each other.
  • New challenges are asking us, policy makers and stakeholders, to explore new models of collaboration in research, and let me add, education and innovation.
  • Models in which the integration of the partners and their commitment is bolder. But also models able to cope with a greater level of autonomy, complexity, size and heterogeneity.
  • For this reason I very much appreciate the spirit and aims of this event. Up to now, let me say, research networks were rather unmanaged....we assumed that the benefit of collaborating was self evident and this would have kept the partners together.
  • In front of the challenges we face, this assumption doesn't hold any longer. These networks need to be managed and, in my understanding, not much analysis and work has been done on this issue: how to manage, in the noblest sense, research networks?
  • Funny enough, Europe has been financing research trough the support of collaborative networks but few, as I believe, have been making research on how these networks shall be governed and organized.
  • For this reason I wish you the very best for the success of this event and, as I am involved in these issues at the European Parliament, a very much look forward to your conclusions.