«Geoghegan-Quinn must revitalise European science policy»

What do Europe’s leading scientific minds think of the challenges the European Research Commissioner must face up to? And what must she do in order to achieve them?

Prof. Mineke Bosch
Chair Modern History, Faculty of Arts, Dept. of History, University Groningen

To achieve a European Research Area, Europe needs to actively involve seven hundred thousand additional researchers, among them many women scientists. This is not only a matter of justice, as nowadays women represent more than half of the students all over Europe, but also one of scientific quality. Because of the value brought by diversity of profiles in order to achieve excellence and innovation in research, it is essential to significantly increase women’s participation in science. Moreover, the integration of a gender dimension in research is a prerequisite to ensure a sustainable science that will serve the European Research Area in all its variety.

According to the She Figures 2009, on average women scientists earn 45% of EU doctoral degrees. In contrast to this good news is the sad news that women scientists hold only 18% of grade A academic positions throughout the European Union. This means that European research is attracting the potential of highly qualified women scientists in much smaller numbers than that of men scientists. This situation is detrimental to the realisation of the desired and much needed European Research Area. It will definitely complicate the efforts to reach the goal of Europe becoming the world’s most competitive knowledge-based economy.

Though since 1999 Research Commissioners have committed themselves to the active promotion of women scientists, I am severely troubled by the down ward trend in the original zeal. Among the inspiring actions taken by DG Research was the creation in 2005 of the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS), a network of networks which gathers 12.000 women scientists over Europe that could act as a platform and a discussion partner for the Commission. Among women scientists, and in particular those in Central and Eastern Europe, this aroused great expectation. Yet, after three years of immense hard work and successful interventions EPWS could no longer be funded by DG Research contracts, as the Commission’s administrative rules are not compatible with the operation of an international association with low membership fees. With the great loss of invested time and money, also the great investment in the organization of women scientists’ representation in EU research policies is threatened. I call upon our new Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to take up the challenge of revitalising the women and science policies that were so stimulating for women scientists during FP5 and FP6, including a solution for EPWS so that it will continue to carry the voice of European women scientists!

Dr Luc van Dyck

Secretary, Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE)

A couple of years ago politicians all over Europe were speaking about rebalancing EU expenses for the benefit of research and innovation in order to, finally, concretize the Lisbon strategy and give Europe a future. Since then, however, several EU Member States under the leadership of France and Germany have endeavoured to reform the Common Agricultural Policy with the aim of safeguarding agricultural expenses. Moreover, dreams of an increased EU budget based on new, possibly own resources are fading away in the midst of the financial and economical crises that have hit the world and rocked public finances.

Against this background, Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn will face a tough battle fighting for a bigger share of the new financial perspectives – the EU budget for the period 2014 to 2020. A second major challenge will be proposing a new Framework Programme (FP8, to start in 2014) striking a good balance between industrial and frontier research and favouring key pillars of the European Research Area such as mobility, international cooperation, research infrastructures and the European Research Council.

However, for both industry and academic researchers, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is expected to make a visible difference through the simplification of the Framework Programme procedures and, most importantly, the (in)famous financial regulations, thereby making European research funding much more science ‘friendly’. Whilst maintaining high accountability standards, it is crucial to recognize the specificities of the research process – which are very different from commercial activities – to provide the necessary flexibility and reduced red tape, for instance, by issuing lump-sum grants instead of contracts whenever possible.

If the above form part of the new Commissioner’s ambitions, she should then, in all likelihood, be able to count on the whole scientific community ‘lending a hand’.

Anton Zeilinger

Professor of Physics, University of Vienna
Scientific Director, Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), Austrian Academy of Science

The most important goal for the technological future of Europe is to position it at the scientific top world wide. This requires various measures.

First, one should identify what the best conditions are for top fundamental research. This can only be done by looking over the shoulders of the best European scientists. How are they really working? How are they attracting new members of their group? How are they fostering a climate where ideas are welcome? How do they make decisions about which research goals to follow and which to drop?

Second, when compared with other regions in the world, Europe has an immense asset in being experienced to handle complexity in a flexible and open way. This is also true for science. Therefore in terms of research, goals and projects, Europe should not so much follow the example of other regions in the world, but set its own standards and goals.

Third, there are many Europeans at all levels of their career, who work abroad and would love to come back. All it takes is to provide them with the research opportunities such that they can pursue their ideas as well in Europe as abroad. Europe should actively scout for these people and find out what it takes to get them back.

Altogether, Europe must be aware, that in the long run it is excellency in fundamental research which determines the future of its technology and of its industry.

This is a preview of an extensive feature included in the April edition of Public Service Review: Science and Technology.

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