A European research renaissance?

Research is one of the fields with most to gain from the likely ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

Science and technology will be at the heart of the post-Lisbon transformation of the EU from a 20th-century common market propping up farming and dying industries into a union promoting 21st-century growth.

For a taste of what’s to come – Tory Europhobes permitting – look at the first report of the European Research Area Board, published this week.

ERAB was set up last year by Janez Potočnik, who has been a remarkably successful commissioner for science and research since 2004.

The inaugural ERAB report provides a roadmap for a European research “renaissance” over the next 20 years. It is an appealing mixture of vision and specific objectives.

The report lists practical tests that will enable people to tell whether the objectives have been achieved. For example “we will know the European Research Area is a place of excellence in 2030 when we see 50% of EC research funding going to frontier, high-risk R&D.”

John Wood of Imperial College London, who chairs ERAB, says: “The biggest problem is the lack of mobility of researchers across Europe. We have pensions and social security systems that lock people in place.

“For instance, if you have an academic post in Germany the pension is not transferable,” he adds. “If you leave it, you lose it.”

Wood’s second priority is for the EU to change the rules for state aid to industry, so that pre-competitive research can be funded more effectively.

One of ERAB’s recommendations – the creation of a European chief scientist to work across all directorate-generals – has already been taken up as a commitment by José Manuel Barroso, the commission president.

Commissioner Potočnik says implementing the recommendations really would lead to a renaissance of European research. He notes too that the Lisbon Treaty provides a legal foundation for strengthening science and technology in the European Research Area.

After his successful five years in charge of research, Potočnik is certain to remain a commissioner though he is likely to move to a different portfolio.

Let’s hope that the research post attracts a new commissioner as imaginative and capable as Potočnik. I’m biased, of course, but leading a European research renaissance seems to me the best job in Brussels.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.