EU unveils plan for global science partnerships

The European Commission wants to enhance international scientific partnerships Copyright: Flickr/barbiez

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The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), has set out a strategy to increase the EU’s international cooperation and capacity building in science and innovation, including boosting partnerships with emerging economies and developing countries.

Despite progress in the EU’s international science activities, "critical mass is lacking in many cases and the strategy driving the development of the actions is not always clear", according to a report released by the Commission this week (17 September).

To change this — and to attract scientific talent, tackle global societal challenges and support the EU’s external policies — the Commission sets out a strategic approach in its report, ‘Enhancing and focusing EU international cooperation in research and innovation: A strategic approach’. This will include the use of science diplomacy as an "instrument of soft power and a mechanism for improving relations with key countries and regions".

Regarding developing countries, the emphasis will be on "building partnerships — in particular bi-regional partnerships — to contribute to the sustainable development of these regions and address challenges such as the green economy, climate action, improved agriculture, food security and health," the report says.

The main funding instrument for this new vision will be the EU’s new €80 billion (around US$105 billion) six-year research framework, Horizon 2020, which begins in 2014 and will be open to participants from "all over the world".

"We are working full time to develop this international cooperation," Thierry Devars, an international relations officer for the Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation, told SciDev.Net.

The Horizon 2020 research goals will be aligned with the EU’s development goals by a newly created internal Commission working group, comprising research and international development directorate staff members "to try and better coordinate the capacity-building initiative," Devars said.

The resulting grants and programmes will be marketed with EU partners throughout the developing world, Devars added.

"In each region of the world we have a kind of a platform, a gathering of researchers from Europe and the region," Devars told SciDev.Net. "The role of these platforms is to promote research opportunities, advertise the calls [for research proposals], publicise subjects and topics, and organise workshops."

The EU has a history of funding international research and capacity building through its framework programmes FP6 (2002–2006) and FP7 (2007–2012). The new international strategy in part reflects a 2011 evaluation of FP7, which called for an "intensification" of international cooperation in research, focused on "engaging with partners outside of Europe on equal terms and in programmes and activities of high mutual interest".

"EU collaboration with developing countries will continue," Daan du Toit, South Africa’s science and technology representative to the EU, told SciDev.Net. "But there will be more specific focus areas for specific topics where there is shared interest between Europe and the country concerned".

"There’s a number of processes where we [the African governments] discuss with the European Commission to try and identify what those priorities are."

Paolo Sarfatti, director of Agrinatura — an alliance of 35 European universities and research organisations working in agricultural research, education, training and capacity building for development — told SciDev.Net that Horizon 2020 offers a "golden opportunity" for ensuring research projects are designed to "really and truly address issues like poverty reduction". He said this is partly due to the fact that the commission is designing the new development aid programme concurrently with Horizon 2020.

Horizon 2020 still needs to be approved by the European Parliament and its member states. The priorities and approaches are being finalised over the next few months, for proposed adoption in early 2013, according to a published EU timeline. The first calls for proposals will be launched in January 2014.

Link to FP7 evaluation report [775kB]