A European research agenda?

I dare say you have never even heard of the European Research Area Board, but if you work in a university anywhere in Europe you may just want to start taking an interest. But let’s back up a little further. The Board is designed to support the concept of the ‘European Research Area‘ which was established by the European Union in 2000 and which is a concept to develop world class research across the EU. The European Research Area Board was created in 2001 to provide advice on the implementation of the European Research Area. It has 22 members, a majority of whom are European public servants and higher education administrators – but including Ireland’s Frank Gannon, Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland.

So why is it important just now? Well, the Board has been looking at the relative under-performance of European universities compared with US ones in terms of research, and has been advising on ways in which the situation might be improved. A report setting out some proposals has been published, though curiously not on the ERAB website; so I am relying on a summary of it in the journal Times Higher Education. In short, the Board appears to be suggesting that EU research funding – which is based on a number of principles that include a need for research groups covering several member states – is not producing competitive excellence, so that not only is the United States managing to stay well ahead of European research performance, but there are now signs that China and other Asian countries may be about to overtake Europe also. In fact, the only European country that manages to maintain an internationally strong position in research is the United Kingdom.

The Board therefore suggests that funding should focus more deliberately on excellence and on achieving critical mass in key research fields. They also suggest that the task of awarding research grants should not be carried out directly by the European Commission. Perhaps more worryingly for Ireland, the Board suggests that it is not feasible for all European countries to have ‘top 20’ universities.

Regardless of how exactly Europe addresses research performance, it is clear that so far the EU significantly under-performs globally. I suspect that this is not just (and maybe not even mainly) a matter of how funds are distributed, it is also about the absence in many European countries (including the leading economies of France and Germany) of independent universities that can develop and pursue their own research strategies. I am inclined to conclude (as I have done before) that the European higher education area cannot become internationally competitive unless and until it is based on a very different understanding of how universities operate. There is still some way to go.

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13 Comments on “A European research agenda?”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    “Perhaps more worryingly for Ireland, the Board suggests that it is not feasible for all European countries to have ‘top 20′ universities.”

    Well it would be impossible for all 22 European countries to have top 20 universities, particular since the UK will always have four. However, I amn’t sure why that should be worrying for Ireland, we should never be afraid to compete.

    The real problem with EU funding is the way they overload their funding programmes with diverse, sometimes vague, strategic goals: just fund the best damn it. I would also worry that SFI is starting to absorb some of that culture and drift away from the NSF like directness and direct reliance on peer-review, that was always its best feature.

    • Thanks, Aoife – I didn’t explain that very well. What I meant was that the statement that not all could have a top 20 university probably suggested (given that this is the EU) that they would therefore focus on France and Germany. If it meant that excellence would come first, then absolutely, bring it on. But that’s not usually how things happen there. I agree with you absolutely about funding the best.

      • Vincent Says:

        should not the best be able to fund themselves.

        • Vincent, I wonder what ‘funding themselves’ would mean. You probably don’t mean that money should be falling out of the sky for them. So maybe you mean that they should be able to find income that would fund them. Such as income from Europe. As well as, of course, income from business sources

          • Vincent Says:

            While the first income is from the State in any direct form then you are quite simply PAYED FOR. The old system, shall we say pre TCD depended on a Gift from the person of the King or others. But property was exchanged. To-day the older Oxbridge Colleges own huge tracts of London and other cities, where with rolling 30/40/60 and 90 leases they have a permanent tranche of cash such that they have the ability to tell to the Government to fuck off. They are the coy ones, they are approached with temptations.
            In the recent debates on the Lisbon, you stated the problem yourself, which I call a gravelike quite. It really is so very disturbing. And this is a product of dependence.
            While there is no independence, the Boole, the Tyndall, the Callan cannot Live, only exist.
            And I cannot see where, until all the Universities on this island come together and hold one cap out to Europe, or anyone else for that matter, there will be anything more that narrow or closing out study being done. Which leaves many PhD in the same position as Noel Browne having solved TB.
            If I have one problem with you, it is contained in my joke about the Barrels of Wine. I hold a university should think 200 years as medium term.

          • Aoife Citizen Says:

            But Vincent, there are no contemporary examples of what you suggest; the Universities you listed all receive substantial state support.

            The large Cambridge colleges are more independent because they have endowments, if we try to build up endowments our block grant is reduced and, anyway, we are using philanthropy money to support the state sponsored research.

            And nonetheless we are the 41st best University in the world!

          • Vincent Says:

            Granted Aoife, but they can and will survive if all support from the State in removed. Can you, even if you have tenure.

          • Vincent Says:

            And I may willingly pay for your independence than I will for a sub set of a sub set of a sub set, that may or may not work.

          • Aoife Citizen Says:

            Sorry 43rd best.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Vincent, do you have an international example of that?

  3. Vincent Says:

    Yes, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. And that is just to start with the Protestant ones. There are any number of Catholic schools of the first rank where the first shilling is not a State shilling.
    Just because we in Europe have for the last 100 or so years given a huge subvention directly to Universities this is neither tradition or a Good.
    With the exception of places like CERN the only input of the State should confine itself to finance following the student.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      They all receive _substantial_ research funding from the NSF, NIH, DARPA, the DoE, all government bodies. Their teaching function is funded by student fees, true, but not their research. They do, also, have funding from the big medical charities, Howard Hughes principally, just as we compete for Wellcome money, but the bulk of their money is state money.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        . . . and what’s more the US government agencies give much better overheads. A research grant usually covers direct cost and then, on top, includes an overhead: intended to cover indirect costs like space and services. SFI gives 30 percent, which doesn’t really cover the indirect costs and forces a cross subsidization from other incomes. In the US the overhead varies from University to University and agency to agency, but can be in the high 80s and low 90s: enough to cover indirect costs and to give some extra monies that can be used for strategic funding, hiring, start-up costs for new hires, support for currently underfunded research areas, and so on. Since the overheads track the original grants this gives better Universities more income.

        Better overheads, from government funding, is probably one of the key factors for the preeminence of US universities: the EU gives terrible overheads, the UK funding bodies are much better.

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