View from Europe: ‘science is, and always will be, one of our strongest common values’
Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation - Image credit: European Commission
I consider myself an optimist about our future and the central role that science will play in it.
I know that the overwhelming majority of scientists in the UK voted to remain in the European Union and that the current uncertainties are affecting the lives of thousands of researchers.
First, let’s look at the facts. While the UK remains part of the European Union, the Horizon 2020 programme is fully open to it so, I urge Scottish researchers to please keep collaborating with your European partners.
I also urge you to take part in the preparations for the next EU Framework Programme and help us make it even better than Horizon 2020.
I welcome the statements by the UK Government that the UK would like to continue to take part in those specific programmes which are greatly to the UK and EU’s joint advantage, such as those that promote science, education and culture.
One of the privileges of being European Commissioner is meeting scientists and entrepreneurs from across Europe, but the more I travel, the more I recognise the values we have in common across Europe.
I believe the first of these values is the respect for science and scientific knowledge.
This is a value that has deep historical roots. Institutions like the Royal Society of Edinburgh have existed for centuries and are held in great respect.
This is equally true for the Académie de Science in France or the Leopoldina Institute in Germany.
So, although we talk about the ‘post truth’ society, I believe that many, if not most Europeans, have great trust in science.
I also see that Europe is leading the way in strengthening this public trust in science.
The new European Code on Research Integrity is vital to demonstrate to the public that science in Europe operates to the highest standards.
Open Science is also about integrity. Europe is leading on open access to all scientific publications.
A second distinctive value is that Europe is at a midway point between two schools of thought: individualism and collectivism. This is one of our assets for science.
On the one hand, science requires individualism – the ability to challenge the current wisdom.
On the other hand, modern science is increasingly about collaboration.
Take the example of gravitational waves. Their theoretical prediction was made by Albert Einstein in 1916.
A century later, the experimental detection of gravitational waves was the result of the work of over 1,000 scientists.
Beyond these scientists, 440,000 citizen scientists contributed to the analysis through the Einstein@home project.
So, the combination of individual creativity and large-scale collaboration is the hallmark of modern science and also the hallmark of Europe.
Look at Horizon 2020. Through the European Research Council, we support the best individual researchers with creative ideas; and under the societal challenges, we support collaborative projects with partners across Europe and the globe.
Just before the summer, an independent high level group, let by Pascal Lamy, presented a vision for future EU research and innovation, ‘Lab, Fab, App’.
The members of this group have incredible experience and expertise, including RSE fellow Professor Iain Gray.
The eleven recommendations contained in the Lamy report provide a compelling vision and an ambitious path forward. Let me discuss three of those recommendations here.
The recommendation to introduce mission-driven research and innovation has attracted a lot of support.
I see the potential for missions to engage the public, more so than European research ever has before.
I would like the public to know more about European research, to be proud of it, and to know that it is working for them.
The Lamy report also strongly supported the idea of a European Innovation Council to create new opportunities for Europe’s innovators to develop their ideas in Europe; and to focus on the individual innovator, and not just the paperwork.
We will start with a pilot European Innovation Council next month. For the first time, we will open up Horizon 2020 to support innovative ideas in any area and also for the first time, we will introduce an interview stage in the evaluations so that the final funding decision will be based on the person.
I am delighted to see that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, publicly endorsed the idea of a European innovation agency.
It is the first time I have heard a European head of state talking seriously about innovation for a long time. We need more of this!
One of the other recommendations in the Lamy report is to make international cooperation a trademark of EU research and innovation.
Earlier this month, Nature published an article looking at the effect of open research systems which encourage international collaboration.
The authors found a direct link between being open and producing high impact research.
In fact, their analysis found that seven of the top 10 most open countries for research were European.
In the UK, for instance, 30 per cent of all scientific articles are internationally co-authored and over 21 per cent of researchers are internationally mobile.
I noted earlier that modern science often requires large-scale, international collaboration.
Just last month, new discoveries of gravitational waves were announced.
This time the discovery came from a collaboration between the US and the VIRGO detector in Italy and the result was better quality data.
The next step will be a truly global effort, to launch a space-based gravitational wave detector through a worldwide collaboration that involves NASA and the European Space Agency.
We must not risk slipping backwards into less open ways of approaching the world.
I hope that the next framework programme will be larger, more international, more open, and more ambitious. What is certain is that excellence will remain at its core.
The veteran Scottish MEP and visionary thinker on Europe Professor Sir Neil MacCormick said in his final debate in the European Parliament that “we are all piloting the boat in the same direction.”
He understood that in Europe itself, there are major differences.
Yet, if we have a shared goal, and a willingness to get there together, this is the most essential thing.
I cannot speculate what the final outcome of Brexit will be but I firmly believe that our common direction is the product of our common values – and science is, and always will be, one of our strongest common values.