» European Union promoting soft power through science
04.05.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

European Union promoting soft power through science

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The European Union celebrated its anniversary on 25 March, sixty years to the day after the Treaties of Rome were signed in 1957. Since 1994, the EU has signed international agreements for scientific and technological cooperation with 20 ‘third’ countries: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Rep. Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Russian Federation, South Africa, Tunisia, Ukraine and the USA. (1) The European Parliament noted in its 2015 briefing that ‘the science diplomacy aspect of this cooperation is emphasized at EU level to facilitate interactions with third countries, as well as to increase the EU's soft power’. (2)

The vehicles for this scientific cooperation are the successive seven-year framework programmes for research and innovation elaborated by the European Union for its member states and selected ‘third countries’. As the UNESCO Science Report (2015) recalls, ‘the current programme, Horizon 2020, is the bloc’s biggest ever, with a seven-year budget of close to €80 billion... Some 17% of the Horizon 2020 budget has been earmarked for basic research through the European Research Council and 39% for societal challenges, such as health, demographic change and well-being, climate action and secure, clean and efficient energy... The environment industry is one of the few economic sectors that has flourished in Europe since 2008’.

‘The European Union (EU) invites countries beyond the bloc to participate in its framework programmes for research and innovation, including developing countries’, observes the UNESCO Science Report. Some countries are associated with the programmes through a formal agreement. For Horizon 2020, this includes Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, Israel and countries at various stages of negotiations regarding their future accession to the EU, as in the case of several Southeast European countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia) and both Moldova and Turkey. As part of its Association Agreement concluded with the EU in 2014, Ukraine has also formally become a Horizon 2020 partner.

The EU is also collaborating with individual countries through long-term megascience projects. One example is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in in France by a consortium made up of China, the EU, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and USA. The experimental reactor will be powered by nuclear fusion, a technology which produces few pollutants. ITER is the flagship project of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The EU is financing its 45% share of the ITER construction costs, or €2.7 billion over the 2014-2020 period. The Russian government signed an agreement for co-operation with Euratom in 2001 in the field of controlled nuclear safety (2001) that is still in force.

The same, yet different

All four members of the European Free Trade Association participate in the EU’s framework programmes but not on the same footing. Whereas Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are automatically fully associated with these programmes, Switzerland must negotiate a bilateral agreement with the EU for each one. This is because Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway all signed the agreement creating the European Economic Area (EEA) but Switzerland could not, owing to the country’s rejection of the treaty in a referendum in November 1992.

‘Iceland and Norway were among the most successful countries per capita for the obtention of competitive research grants from the Seventh Framework Programme over 2007–2013’, notes the UNESCO Science Report, adding that ‘participation in EU activities is not free, of course. Besides paying a lump sum to each framework programme, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway contribute to reducing socio-economic disparities in Europe, via a special programme administered autonomously by the European Economic Area Secretariat: the EEA/Norway grants programme. Between 2008 and 2014, these three countries invested € 1.8 billion in 150 programmes that had been defined jointly with 16 beneficiary countries in central and southern Europe. In relation to climate change, for instance, one of the programme’s priority themes, a joint project enabled Portugal to draw on the Icelandic experience to tap its geothermal potential in the Azores. Through another project, Innovation Norway and the Norwegian Water Resource and Energy Administration have helped Bulgaria to improve its energy efficiency and innovate in green industries.

The report explains that ‘Liechtenstein has decided to refrain from an association with Horizon 2020, in light of the small number of scientists from this country and its resultant low participation level in the two former programmes’.

Even though Switzerland was unable to sign the European Economic Area treaty, a bilateral agreement with the EU nevertheless allows Switzerland to take advantage of the main EU instruments in place, including the seven-year framework programmes for research and innovation. In return, Switzerland is expected to adhere to the four freedoms of the EU’s single market, the freedom of movement of goods, capital, people and services, as if it were a member of the European Economic Area. Switzerland is the most successful country per capita in the calls for research proposals issued by the European Research Council and one of its universities, the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, is leading the Human Brain Project, one of the two flagship projects of the Future and Emerging Technologies programme of Horizon 2020, the other flagship being the Graphene Project.

Switzerland’s continued participation in Horizon 2020 was thrown into doubt, however, after the Swiss government informed the EU that it would be unable to give Croatian citizens unrestricted access to the Swiss job market, as this would have been incompatible with the outcome of the anti-immigration referendum in February 2014. The European Commission reacted by excluding Switzerland from research programmes potentially worth hundreds of millions of euros for its universities and suspended negotiations on Switzerland’s participation as a full member of Horizon 2020. The crisis was resolved after the Swiss parliament adopted a bill in December 2016 that gave priority to Swiss nationals and foreigners registered at Swiss job agencies but stopped short of introducing quotas on EU citizens.(3)

Countries eligible to submit research proposals

In addition to those countries with formal agreements, ‘a wider list of countries, including numerous developing ones, are in principle automatically eligible to submit research proposals through Horizon 2020 programmes’, explains the report. ‘Association with the EU’s framework programmes can represent a significant contribution to the partner country’s research volume and help it develop linkages with international networks of excellence’. For instance, Lebanon has participated in a platform linking Mediterranean observatories of science, technology and innovation, set up by the Mediterranean Science, Policy, Research and Innovation Gateway (Med-Spring) project within the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2007–2013).

In turn, ‘the EU has derived substantial benefit from the scientific talent of countries from the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere (e.g. Israel) through its framework programmes’.

Russian researchers participating in Horizon 2020

Russian research centres and universities are participating in Horizon 2020 within international consortia, following fairly active participation in previous framework programmes. This co-operation is co-ordinated by a joint committee; in parallel, joint working groups have been set up to manage field-specific joint research calls that are cofinanced by the allied EU and Russian programmes. A roadmap for establishing the EU–Russia Common Space for Research and Education is also currently being implemented, involving, inter alia, the stepping up of collaboration in space research and technologies.

The Russian Federation participates in a number of European research centres, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France and European X-ray Free Electron Laser in Germany. It is a major stakeholder in several international megascience projects, including the ongoing construction of the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Germany and of ITER.

In 2014, a wide array of activities were set in motion as part of the Russian–EU Year of Science. These include the launch of joint projects such as Interact (Arctic research), Supra (next-generation pilot simulators), Diabimmune (diabetic and auto-immune illness prophylactics) and Hopsa/Apos (efficient supercomputing for science and industry).

Even at the height of tensions over Ukraine, in 2014, the Agreement on Co-operation in Science and Technology was renewed for another five years by the European Commission and the Russian government. However, economic sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation by the EU in 2014 are limiting co-operation in certain areas, such as dual-use military technologies, energy-related equipment and technologies, services related to deep-water exploration and Arctic or shale oil exploration. The sanctions may ultimately affect broader scientific co-operation.

China the EU’s biggest partner after the USA and Russian Federation

China has enjoyed extensive co-operation with the EU ever since the signing of the EU–China Science and Technology Agreement in 1999. Relations have deepened, in particular, since the creation of the EU–China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2003. During the Seventh Framework Programme, China was the EU’s third-largest partner country (after the USA and the Russian Federation) for the number of participating organizations (383) and collaborative research projects (274), particularly those focusing on health, environment, transportation, information and communication technologies and the bio-economy.

Co-operation with China is significant for qualitative reasons, as many projects focus on frontier technologies, such as clean and efficient carbon capture. In addition to facilitating a convergence of views between researchers of different backgrounds, this co-operation has had some positive spillovers to other regions in in complex cross-disciplinary areas, one example being the project for Advancing Universal Health Coverage in Asia over 2009–2013). The EU and China are also co-operating within Euratom via its fission programme and the construction of ITER.

The EU intends for China to remain an important partner of Horizon 2020, even though China is no longer eligible for funding from the European Commission, meaning that EU and Chinese participants will be expected to secure funding themselves for their joint project proposals. The initial work programme (2014–2015) under Horizon 2020 will most likely focus on food, agriculture and biotechnology; water; energy; ICTs; nanotechnology; space; and polar research. China’s co-operation with the Euratom Work Programme on topics related to fusion and fission is also expected to continue.

Israel: 20 years of association with EU science

Israel has been associated with the EU’s framework programmes on research and innovation since 1996. Between 2007 and 2013, Israeli public and private institutions contributed their scientific expertise to over 1 500 projects. Israel also participates in other EU programmes, such as those of the European Research Council. It was one of the ten founding members of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, back in 1974.

Israel has been a Scientific Associate of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility since 1999; the agreement was renewed in 2013 for a fourth term of five years and notably raised Israel’s contribution from 0.5% to 1.5% of ESRF’s budget.

Israel has been selected as one of the seven nodes of the European Strategy Forum of Research Infrastructure, which is establishing about 40 such nodes in total, seven of them in biomedical sciences. The aim of the biomedical Instruct is to provide pan-European users with access to state-of-the-art equipment, technologies and personnel in cellular structural biology, to enable Europe to maintain a competitive edge in this vital research area.

Israel is also one of the nodes of Elixir, which orchestrates the collection, quality control and archiving of large amounts of biological data produced by life science experiments in Europe. Some of these datasets are highly specialized and were previously only available to researchers within the country in which they were generated.

Biregional cooperation with economic blocs

In addition to bilateral agreements with individual countries, the EU also has arrangements for scientific cooperation with regional economic communities. For instance, the Southeast Asia–EU Network for Biregional Co-operation project (SEA–EU NET II) was funded by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. This network spawned the launch of the annual ASEAN–European Union Science, Technology and Innovation Days in 2014, which are intended to reinforce dialogue and co-operation between these two regional bodies. A similar network has been launched in the Pacific, the Pacific–Europe Network for Science, Technology and Innovation (PACE-Net Plus.

One of the strategic goals of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) is to deepen ties with the European Commission in Brussels. BSEC was founded in 1992, shortly after the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in order to develop prosperity and security in the region. It comprises 12 members: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine.

BSEC has adopted three Action Plans on Cooperation in Science and Technology (2005-2009, 2010-2014 and 2014-2018). The second Action Plan was funded on a project basis, since the plan had no dedicated budget. Two key projects funded by the European Union got under way in 2008 and 2009, namely the Scientific and Technological International Cooperation Network for Eastern European and Central Asian Countries (IncoNet EECA) and the Networking on Science and Technology in the Black Sea Region project (BS-ERA-Net). BSEC’s second action plan targeted the development of physical and virtual multinational infrastructure by pooling the resources of BSEC member states, the networking of research institutes and universities in BSEC countries and their connection to the European gigabit.

BSEC's Third Action Plan on Science and Technology 2014-2018 acknowledges that considerable effort has been devoted to setting up a Black Sea Research Programme involving both BSEC and EU members but also that, ‘in a period of scarce public funding, the research projects the Project Development Fund could support will decrease and, as a result, its impact will be limited. Additional efforts are needed to find a solution for the replenishment of the Project Development Fund’.

Meanwhile, IncoNet CA was launched by the EU in September 2013 to encourage Central Asian countries to participate in research projects within Horizon 2020. The focus of the research projects is on three societal challenges considered as being of mutual interest to both the EU and Central Asia, namely: climate change, energy and health.

IncoNet CA builds on the experience of earlier EU projects which involved other regions, such as Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and the Western Balkans. IncoNet CA focuses on twinning research facilities in Central Asia and Europe. It involves a consortium of partner institutions from Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Portugal, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. In May 2014, the EU launched a 24-month call for applications from twinned institutions – universities, companies and research institutes – for funding of up to € 10 000 to enable them to visit one another’s facilities to discuss project ideas or prepare joint events like workshops. The total budget within IncoNet CA amounts to € 85 000.

A drop in Africa’s participation in Horizon 2020

Initially framed within the Cotonou Agreement (2000) covering sub-Saharan, Caribbean and Pacific countries but excluding South Africa, the EU’s co-operation with Africa is increasingly being organized in partnership with Africa’s own frameworks for co-operation, in particular the African Union, as well as within the Joint Africa–EU Strategy adopted by African and European Heads of State at the Lisbon Summit in 2007.

The ERAfrica initiative (2010–2014) funded by the Seventh Framework Programme enabled European and African countries to launch joint calls for proposals in three thematic fields: Renewable Energy; Interfacing Challenges; and New Ideas; this has resulted in 17 collaborative research projects being backed by € 8.3 million. Meanwhile, the Network for the Coordination and Advancement of sub-Saharan Africa–EU Science and Technology Cooperation Plus (CAAST-Net Plus, 2013–2016) focuses on food security, climate change and health, with the participation of 26 research organizations across both continents.

South Africa is the only African country to participate in the EU’s Erawatch programme. One out of four of South Africa’s almost 1 000 applications to the Seventh Framework Programme for research project funding was successful, representing a total of more than € 735 million, according to the 2012 Erawatch report on South Africa.

African countries are expected to participate in Horizon 2020 through similar arrangements to those for the Seventh Framework Programme. By mid-2015, institutions from 16 African countries had reportedly obtained € 5 million from Horizon 2020 in the form of 37 individual grants, the majority of which are related to climate change and health research. However, as of late 2015, African involvement in Horizon 2020 was lower than for the Seventh Framework Programme. According to the EU, this primarily reflects the need to set up national contact points in more African countries and to increase their capacity through supportive EU projects.

Steps towards a common knowledge area with Latin America

Biregional scientific co-operation between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean dates back to the early 1980s, when the former Commission of the European Communities and the Andean Group Secretariat signed an agreement for co-operation and established a joint commission to oversee its implementation. Later, Europe concluded similar agreements with the Central American countries and the Mercado del Sur (Mercosur).

The sixth summit between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean in 2010 identified new pathways for biregional co-operation in the Madrid Declaration, which emphasized partnership in the areas of innovation and technology for sustainable development and social inclusion. The summit defined the long-term goal of achieving a common ‘knowledge area’ and agreed on a Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation.

Some 17 countries are participating in a key project within this initiative called ALCUE Net, which runs from 2013 to 2017. This project has established a joint platform for policy-makers, research institutions and the private sector from both regions in four thematic areas:

  • information and communication technologies;
  • the bio-economy;
  • biodiversity and climate change; and
  • renewable energies.

A second project with joint calls (ERANet LAC) is implementing projects in these four areas. Some € 11 million were available for the first call for project proposals (2014–2015) and a similar amount for the second call (2015–2016). The partners also carried out a foresight exercise in 2015 to build a common long-term vision for biregional co-operation.

Schemes supporting scientific mobility for non-EU researchers

Specific EU schemes support international mobility for researchers from beyond the bloc. The European Parliament’s brief explains that ‘a European Research Council grant is available to researchers, provided they spend at least half of the grant duration in the EU or an associated country’. Research and Innovation Staff Exchange scheme also promotes researcher mobility between member states and third countries.(2)

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships, which like the European Research Council, are currently financed through Horizon 2020, ‘are also open to individual researchers, regardless of their nationality, allowing them to conduct research projects in the EU and associated countries’, explains the brief. (2) Nearly 4 000 Chinese researchers received funding through the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions between 2007 and 2013, according to the UNESCO Science Report.

(1) Countries with EU international agreements on science and technology

(2) EU Parliament (2015) EU scientific cooperation with third countries. Briefing.

(3) Maurice, Eric (2016) EU and Switzerland agree on free movement. EU Observer, 22 December

Source: adapted from UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015)




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