Research and innovation (R&I) have long been essential parts of our daily lives, be it in health and wellbeing, urban mobility, the environment, safety at work or digital learning. At the same time, with the COVID-19 crisis, the urgency for collective R&I responses to successfully tackle challenges that arise at global level is now staring us in the face.
With less than 7% of the world population, the European Union accounts for almost 20% of global investment in R&I. However, when it comes to R&I expenditure as a percentage of GDP, the Union performs rather poorly compared to other global players. There is no doubt that research and innovation is playing a leading role in the recovery from the pandemic. Close cooperation between Member States, cities and regions, as well as substantial investments are therefore more needed than ever.
What is more, in the long-run, investment will pay out for our societies only if we can make sure that everybody will benefit from it. It seems that we have not quite learned the lesson from the 2008 global financial crisis which, as studies suggest, widened the gap in Europe, with R&I policies having led to further divergence between Northwest and South.
During the #WIRE2020 session on ‘Working with the regions for the European recovery’ ERRIN vice-chair @larsholte is pressing the importance of the regional and local perspective, the #ERA and regional and European-level innovation ecosystems in Europe’s recovery. pic.twitter.com/nJCuG8Lf7q
— ERRIN Network (@ERRINNetwork) November 5, 2020
Looking beyond the Horizon: Vision (im)possible?
Thanks to the great efforts of the Socialist and Democrats in the European Parliament, some €95.5 billion for research and innovation from the next multi-annual budget of the EU could be secured under the Horizon Europe programme last December, and they will now make a timely contribution to Europe's' recovery.
We sealed a deal to deliver €95.5 billion for research and innovation within Horizon Europe. Read more on this from Dan Nica MEP https://t.co/hJN7rXVMNb
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) December 18, 2020
“We cannot miss the opportunity to lead and meet the challenge”, rightly pointed out Dan Nica, S&D spokesperson on industry and research. But for developing the full potential of European science and innovation, time has come to go a step further: It is about rethinking the framework conditions for research and innovation at European level, as set out in the European Research Area (ERA), the EU's coordination system for national research infrastructures, and imagine a truly European, non-fragmented space for the development of R&I.
In fact, whilst the ERA has - since its birth some 20 years ago - improved joint research and innovation activities in many ways, the overall progress has been advancing at a rather slow pace. From the point of view of cities and regions, many challenges, such as in particular growing regional disparities, remain on the table.
If we want research and innovation in Europe to be a real driver of sustainable growth, we need a courageous new vision which addresses the social, economic, ecological and digital transitions we are currently navigating through. Is the European Commission's proposal, finally published in September last year, up to the challenge?
Cities and regions: where innovation and research happen
Investing in research and innovation is particularly important for cities and regions. Indeed, by bridging technological, digital, social, cultural and nature-based innovations, they can empower their citizens and contribute to the well-being of future generations.
“Innovate for the better and for all is our motto”, proudly emphasised Mohamed Ridouani, Socialist mayor of the Belgian city of Leuven, winner of the 2020 European Capital of Innovation. “Our innovation model goes beyond technological progress. Together with residents, organisations, businesses and knowledge institutions we are working every day towards a better future. By constantly reconnecting the many diverse forces in our city, the solutions of tomorrow first take shape here. Our model of cooperation and engaged leadership can be a blueprint for other European cities.”
Congratulations to Leuven , Europe's new #iCapital for 2020!
— EITeu (@EITeu) September 30, 2020
For the European Research Area to achieve its ambitions, Europe needs to reach out and involve regional and local authorities in R&I policies across the EU. A place-based approach, together with co-design and co-responsibility of R&I by citizens, remains key to its success. As in many other policy areas, it is about team play.
This is also the main message of French PES Group member and rapporteur Christophe Clergeau, Member of the Pays-de-la-Loire regional council, who is leading the Committee of the Region's work on research and innovation:
“The objective of the European Research Area must be, alongside excellence, the availability in all EU cities and regions of high-quality science that boosts innovation and helps society and businesses meet the challenges of the Sustainable Development Goals and deal with today's crisis.”
Cities and regions are the best testing ground for innovation and key players in the creation of effective regional ecosystems and innovation hubs. “The ERA hubs are a great instrument for the full recognition of a place-based approach to science and innovation. Such an approach is all the more relevant, given the consequences of the current crises on the most fragile and hardest-hit regions and the fragmentation of the ERA”, stresses Clergeau, calling for a yet more ambitious approach, in which the ERA hubs should harbour collective R&I projects, combining several regional ecosystems and innovation hubs in a bottom-up approach.
In addition, the European Committee of the Regions can play an important role to foster the ERA, through already existing initiatives, such as the Knowledge Exchange Platform and the Science Meets Regions initiative.
"Cities and regions need to be the first ones to be involved in the discussions about the ERA hubs, which are a great instrument for the full recognition of a place-based approach to science and innovation." @clergeau #EuropeanResearchArea #CoRPlenary pic.twitter.com/XtqIIYarWK
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 4, 2021
"We have delivered the strongest #HorizonEU programme so far. I believe that will never be wealthy or safe without adequate research and innovation. All Member States should step up their plans."
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 4, 2021
Leading by example
We are still some way away from the true completion of the European Research Area and we expect the latest European Commission proposal to lead to further tangible actions. Cities and regions will need to make sure to be involved in the next steps, such as the announced “Pact for research and innovation”.
When looking beyond the horizon, let us not forget that often, what really matters is hidden behind the clouds: research, innovation and technological change are brought forward by bright people. But are they always driven by the genuine wish to make our world a better and more inclusive place, in which research and innovation benefit our communities as a whole? This is why we expect the forthcoming Pact to be the flagship for the protection of academic and university freedoms, the freedom of expression of lecturers, researchers, students and intellectuals, as well as their freedom of movement, not only within the Union, but also between the Union and its partner countries. This is all the more relevant given the the rapid erosion of academic freedoms in many countries around the world.
Ultimately, this is where the European Union can best lead by example and make a true difference.