Decoding EU science policy

To effectively engage with policy at a European level, an understanding of how the institutions in the European Union work and interact is vital. Knowledge of key policies that drive action in your area of interest is also critical and can help you understand when and where to engage. To help learned societies and other scientific institutions decode the mysteries of the European Union in relation to science policy, Lisa Bungeroth from the International Unit presented a simplified view of the processes behind higher education and innovation policy in the EU at this month’s policy lunchbox seminar.

Lisa, European Research Policy Officer at the International Unit, guided attendees through the EU institutions and the key decision makers, the main policy frameworks backing scientific research across Europe, and how the EU’s flagship science funding policy was formulated and implemented. The International Unit represents the Higher Education sector in the UK, supporting the UK Government and carrying out dialogue with other governments. This includes influencing EU decision-makers, and the organisation engages regularly with individuals in all European institutions.

Understanding the institutional triangle of the European Union is the first step in tracking policy developments in Europe. The three bodies that interact to pass legislation are: the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Ministers.

The Commission is unique – it is the only institution that can propose legislation, highlighting just how vital it is to engage with the Commission. Within the Commission, there are 28 Commissioners (one from each member state), with work areas divided into directorate generals (e.g. DG Research and Innovation). The European Parliament is formed of 766 members, all of whom are elected at a country-level by European citizens. Since the Lisbon treaty was enacted in 2009, the Parliament has had increased powers in voting and decision making. MEPs come together to form committees on a variety of topics, and this can be a good way to track which individuals are engaging in a particular area. The third institution, the Council of Ministers, is formed of Ministers from each member state.

Once legislation has been proposed by the Commission, documents bounce back and forth between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, taking any amendments into account. Lisa highlighted that this process can take up to 6 years for some legislation, and it can sometimes be hard to follow any one specific policy. Discussions come to an end through trialogues (meetings between all three EU institutions), where final amendments are negotiated.

In the areas of research and space, the Lisbon Treaty outlines that the EU and member states have shared competence, meaning both can act independently. The EU exercises its competence mainly through funding, but also promotes collaborative research and stimulates training and mobility.

Lisa highlighted 4 main policy frameworks relevant to science research in the UK:

  1. 1.     EU 2020 – 10 year strategy to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.
  2. 2.     Innovation Union – flagship initiative of EU 2020 to promote innovation in the EU.
  3. 3.     European Research Areas – strategy to create a Europe-wide single market for research, innovation and knowledge, outlining 5 priorities that each member state should meet.
  4. 4.     Horizon 2020 – main funding programme for research and innovation.

Lisa went into more depth on Horizon 2020, the main funding programme for research and innovation across the EU from 2014-2020 (worth €79 billion adjusted for inflation). Funding from this programme is directed towards larger research projects, usually spanning 2-4 years, and formed of collaborations of multiple member states. Funding covers three pillars – excellent science, industrial leadership, and societal challenges. Discussions for a funding mechanism to replace Framework Programme 7 started at the end of 2011, with negotiations over details and budget carrying on for over a year. The final discussions in trialogues took over 6 months, and Horizon 2020 was adopted in late 2013.

Horizon 2020 is only just in motion, and negotiations for its successor won’t begin until after 2016. Individual academics who are interested in feeding in to shaping the research agenda in Europe are able to join expert advisory groups, which bring a wide range of stakeholders together. Another way to get involved is by joining the evaluators database and contribute to evaluation of proposals, review of projects, and monitoring of programmes and policies in specific areas.

Overall, this was an interested and informative session that certainly decoded many areas of EU science policy. Lisa highlighted the complexities and intricacies of the European Union but was able to demonstrate that engagement is still possible in this complex policy landscape.