‘European nations that consolidate their strengths jointly rank best in the world’

Investing in European research helps to solve major societal challenges and is good for the competitive strength of Europe. Robert-Jan Smits (director-general Research and Innovation of the European Commission) and Jos Engelen (chair of NWO and former deputy director of CERN) both agree about this. Then why does it happen so little?

Smits thinks that national research organisations are too reticent and far too focused on their limited national interest. Engelen says that NWO is willing to invest outside of the Netherlands but the Ministry of Finance is not. Brussels needs to do something to change the situation.

Jos Engelen and Robert-Jan SmitsJos Engelen and Robert-Jan Smits

Robert-Jan Smits Our mission is to create a European internal market for research without barriers for the mobility of researchers, with open recruitment at the universities and with high-quality research infrastructures for researchers. Our wish is that researchers can take their grants with them across borders and that they do not suffer a pension shortfall if they go and do research elsewhere. We would also like the national research organisations to invest not just in national research and innovation but also to work together to create this European Research Area (ERA) and to solve major societal challenges.

Jos Engelen The European approach has been prompted by the major societal challenges that Europe faces in the coming years. It is important that nations do not tackle these challenges separately with their own research agendas but instead look at how these agendas complement each other. That is why Europe started the Joint Programming process to enable Member States to work together. A fantastic idea, which unfortunately is taking a long time to get off the ground. Faster progress would be made if the European Commission were to contribute funds as well instead of just suggesting that the money will come once we collaborate. Because that does not work. Europe could mean more if it were to pay on the nail.

Jos Engelen and Robert-Jan Smits

Robert-Jan Smits Why did the national organisations fail to take the initiative for ERA? After all, the European Research Council (ERC) has been a dream of all the NWOs in Europe for the past 30 years. Originally, the idea was that the national research councils organisations would contribute one percent of their budget to a European fund. Yet it is the Commission that rolled up its sleeves and established the ERC. How come the national organisations could not achieve this?

Jos Engelen Because it is not the NWOs that refuse to invest beyond national borders. Based on its strategy, NWO receives public funds that the Dutch government earmarks. The next step, investing beyond national borders but within Europe is easy to take from a scientific point of view but not politically. That is why the European Commission ought to take such principal decisions, as policy that is then supported by the Member States is in turn much easier for us as NWO, as well as our minister, to implement.

Robert-Jan Smits At a European level we have taken initiatives for large-scale infrastructures. These form an essential part of the ERA. But the national research institutions that requested these projects are now not willing to really invest in them, and that is definitely the case if these are not constructed in their own country. Various nations contributed to the cost of CERN and the same is true for the telescopes in Chile. But FAIR (particle accelerator, ed.) in Darmstadt and XFEL (electron laser, ed.) in Hamburg have mostly been constructed with German money. Everybody wants the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund but that has yet to get off the ground because the national contributions pledged by the partners outside of Sweden are not enough to build the entire infrastructure.

Jos Engelen These projects started as national initiatives that other nations could join. That should not be the case if you want a genuine European project. There was no central European management of the projects either. The only body that has the authority to do this, the Commission, did not do so. That is a political story. And as far as the Dutch position is concerned: with an annual budget of 625 million euros NWO cannot credibly say that the Netherlands can invest a billion euros in such a project and then another hundred million euros a year to let it operate. That is simply not possible.

We have asked the national NWOs to come up with an ambitious European strategy
- Robert-Jan Smits

Robert-Jan Smits The societal challenges that we face – the ageing population and the associated increase in neurodegenerative diseases, the energy issues, the food security, cyber security – are of such a scale that no single country on its own has a solution. As barely ten percent of the public funds for research are available at a European level, we have asked the Member States to produce joint research agendas for strategic priorities that can solve the societal problems and consolidate the Member States' activities. That will result in beautiful initiatives such as in the area of dementia and antibiotic resistance. The European Commission has deliberately remained outside of that process of collaboration between the Member States to take away the anxiety that Brussels wants to control the national agendas and ultimately the national budgets as well. We do, however, want to be involved as an observer and are willing to provide funds to support these initiatives. However, the Member States must bear responsibility for the initiatives because ninety percent of the funds for European research are in the hands of the Members States. We would like them to spend this money in a structural and far more coordinated manner. European nations that consolidate their strengths jointly rank best in the world . CERN is a fantastic example of that. And that can happen in more areas still.

Jos Engelen The Joint Programming process is in the wrong hands. In that process, civil servants take the decisions instead of representatives from science. Furthermore, I do not understand why Science Europe (in which science organisations from 27 nations are represented, ed.) failed to gain more of a say in this. You mention CERN as an example of a successful joint initiative. However, that is a poor example because such a collaboration has never been realised elsewhere. Why not? Because nations do not want to invest beyond their own borders. And such a large-scale infrastructure can only be located at one place. CERN is therefore the exception to the rule.

Jos Engelen and Robert-Jan Smits

Robert-Jan Smits NWO currently has no ambitious European agenda aimed at European positioning and concrete investments in Europe. In the NWO strategy document I can only see a European section about benchmarking with other research councils. And the same is true for all other national research councils. They focus on information exchange and networking, but a European strategic agenda aimed at concrete collaboration and positioning in the European landscape is missing. I consider that a real shame.

Jos Engelen There is a difference between the large European vision that you have – and which I share, because I also feel I am a European – and the entrenched daily reality I face as chair of NWO. I cannot replace my daily contact with the ministry with this vision.

Robert-Jan Smits We are trying to keep the European agenda alive. We are therefore asking the national NWOs for an ambitious European strategy. They must not only seek funding from Brussels for this but also invest their own funds. Some research councils inform us that their own ministry of finance does not allow them to invest in Europeanisation, and they are not permitted to implement an open recruitment policy. That is regrettable and is, moreover, in conflict with the concept of the European internal market. In that respect we still have a long way to go before we can realise a genuine European Research Area. Nevertheless, I am not in favour of a Brussels which says how that should be done. I want to do that together with organisations like Science Europe.

Jos Engelen The Europe section in NWO's strategy will grow in the coming years as long as the European agenda remains scientifically sound, inspiring and interactive. Within Europe there are bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral agreements in which we do joint calls and were one of the participating partners is responsible for the allocation of funds. We can certainly work together with the councils we know and trust and that collaboration will increase. But in our strategy the national perspective and the top sectors also play a role. That is the basis on which Dutch research receives public funding.

Robert-Jan Smits The colleagues from the Ministry of Finance keep an eye on the costs of research but not on the economic value that research yields later. Yet nations that invest in the knowledge economy are emerging the quickest from the economic crisis: Switzerland, Germany, and the Scandinavian nations. Europe is currently generating thirty percent of the knowledge in the world. That is incredibly smart for such a small continent. At the very least we should try to consolidate this achievement. The future budget of the EU will be smaller but research and innovation will receive an additional 20 billion euros in funding. That is a political choice and an investment in the future of Europe. Brussels will continue to press for investments in research and innovation at the national level as well. We have also said this to the Netherlands.

Jos Engelen Of course we agree with the need for continued investment. In my view the funding of science is only increasing in importance. Soon there will be nine billion people walking around on earth with all the problems that involves. You cannot solve those without science. In twenty years time, science funding will be far less contested than it is now. My successor will therefore have an easier time than I do at present. However we still have a long way to go …

NWO and Europe

NWO is committed to a good balance between the Dutch and European research and innovation policies. Active participation in the European Research Area (ERA) is a key aspect of this. The aim of ERA is the realisation of free movement for researchers and research data within Europe. Efforts are being made in many areas to realise this. For example, the Joint Programming process is a way of harmonising the research programmes of European nations. On a voluntary basis, European Member States are coordinating national research activities with a joint budget and research agenda. NWO is contributing to this by matching the NWO themes (including the top sectors) with the grand challenges of Europe. NWO is also actively contributing to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and Horizon2020 (the research and innovation programmes of the European Commission) by participating in European consultations and networks. Besides research funding, NWO is contributing to other aspects of the ERA, such as research infrastructures and Open Access. In the European context NWO is mainly acting together with fellow research organisations which have united themselves in Science Europe.

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Author: Malou van Hintum
Photography: Harry Meijer