This month, the research ministers of the European Union agreed on an action plan for the European Commission and the Member States to set up a common European Research Area (ERA)--a promising initiative that opens new perspectives for Europe's young scientists. Dr. Rainer Gerold, Director for Life Science Research of the European Commission, summarized the main goals of the ambitious ERA initiative for Science 's Next Wave.

Europe has completed its common Internal Market for the free movement of persons, goods, services, and capital. With a common European currency, Europe has taken a further decisive step in integration.

E.U. countries have developed policies in areas ranging from agriculture to social affairs; others are being developed, but a common approach is still missing in research and technology.

Commissioner Busquin has now launched a policy initiative to set up a common European Research Area (ERA) for the following reasons.

Modern industrial development and accompanying generation of high-quality employment is more and more dependent on knowledge. Success in world markets at a time of globalization depends on research and the rapid translation of results into high-tech products, processes, and services. And our own quality of life in an ever more densely populated and interrelated world depends increasingly on the intelligent use of research to secure nutrition, to prevent and cure disease, and to protect and improve our environment.

In order to obtain the necessary results and avoid falling behind competitors, the European Union needs to invest more in R&D. But even more important, Europe must overcome the fragmentation of its R&D effort. Despite the fact that most of the problems in the E.U. are common to many if not all the Member States and the fact that E.U. industrial and investment activity is predominantly international, public R&D expenditure in the E.U. is still 85% national, and uncoordinated between Member States. ERA aims to overcome this.

Follows are a few highlights of the ERA proposal. The full paper can be accessed online.

  • Transnational mobility of active scientists in Europe is about 5%. This is more than double other professional groups but still far from satisfactory. In recent years, 8000 young scientists have obtained E.U. grants and a further 13,000 are expected in the near future. Member States are also stepping up efforts. But obstacles remain in social security and mutual recognition of experience, and national research careers are dissuasive to other nationalities. European laboratories also fail to attract a sufficient number of top researchers from other parts of the world.

  • Women account for 50% of university graduates; in life sciences they exceed the number of men. However, they are not found in the same proportion in research, and effort is needed to overcome the various, and often traditional, obstacles to remedy this.

  • Science teaching needs to be based on new concepts to make scientific careers again attractive for the young generation. A positive attitude is the key to harnessing science for our society's problems.

  • Networking and coordination are two ERA key words. World-class research centres exist in practically all disciplines in Europe. Efforts are necessary to map and to link these, to create critical mass, and to attract researchers from the rest of the world. Modern science would be unthinkable without the use of electronic networks like the World Wide Web. A major networking objective is to achieve in Europe levels of data transmission already operating in the U.S.

    E.U. national research programmes are carried out largely independently of one another. In order to bundle forces, avoid duplicating efforts, and provide an attractive range of grant sources to researchers, coordination of these national programmes must be achieved.

  • From research to business. Creating high-tech companies by researchers is still too infrequent in Europe. Regional-level technology parks and business incubators have had a positive effect, but further initiatives to bring scientists, industrialists, and financiers into contact shall be encouraged. A few promising experiments along these lines, like the E.U.'s "Biotechnology and Finance Forum," have been completed.

These items, and many more, are addressed in the ERA communication. The Lisbon Summit of Heads of E.U. Governments in March 2000 and the Council of E.U. Research Ministers in June 2000 have endorsed the communication and agreed on an action plan for the European Commission and the Member States. This is an ambitious task and a challenge to all. But it is only through creating this real European Research Area that Europe will become the major world actor it deserves to be.