Towards an European network for research

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On July 22nd, all the European Ministers for Research were in Milan to lay the foundation stone of the European Network for Research, an international coordination that will involve 800 amongst the largest research centres of excellence in Europe, such as CERN and the Elettra Synchrotron in Trieste. Aim of this network is to make Europe more united and thus more competitive on the world stage, starting from the recent decision of implementing 60 percent of the projects of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) by the end of 2015. How? By establishing specific national plans within a European plan for scientific research.

Let's take a step back. Actually, the idea of a European network is not that recent. It dates back more than ten years ago, precisely in 2002, when ESFRI was born to support a coherent approach to policy-making on research infrastructures in Europe and to facilitate multilateral initiatives, thus leading to the better use and development of research infrastructures at EU and international level. That was the moment when this new commitment for the construction of an international network of research facilities of excellence has started.

Moreover, ESFRI carried out substantial work on the prioritization of financial support to these projects through a one-time financial contribution for the priority projects and to financially support the other projects (preparation and implementation) identified by ESFRI. In other words, the aim is to identify the best research projects and invest funding in order to complete the 60 percent of them by the end of 2015.

This is obviously a very ambitious roadmap, but as our Minister of Research Stefania Giannini has ensured, the resources are not lacking, even in Italy. “I am glad to announce that in a few days I will release Italy’s new National Plan of Research Infrastructure. It represents a decisive step to reshape research and innovation policy in Italy, and also towards a better use of structural funds,” Giannini said, introducing the international meeting in Milan. Italy in fact will be a pioneer, introducing its new national plan for research infrastructures as an offshoot of the more general National Plan for Research (PNR), expected in September.

But what exactly are the highlights of this roadmap? The three main questions that the ministers have identified are the following: how can the European research infrastructure system effectively support European competitiveness? Which instruments can guarantee excellence, promptness and the best use of our resources at European and national level? How can we ensure a long-term sustainability of this system? “The third is probably the most crucial aspect,” Giannini said “and for this reason we need to coordinate many aspects, including, for example, the public access to data and a welcoming attitude towards users from all nationalities.”

Furthermore, the importance of the openness of the research infrastructure, as this a major factor determining the impact on innovation and growth. “Finally,” concludes Giannini “it's crucial to open services and data to public and private innovators, including industry and SMEs.” In other words, to reinforce partnerships with industry and transfer knowledge do usually produce new patterns and innovation. However, in such a period of financial constraints, to ensure the best use possible of available resources is essential. Many countries have systems for evaluating the internal competition, in order to select the national research infrastructures to be sustained. “We are talking about 100 billion dollars overall with an operation costs of over 10 billion euro/year and about 350 million euro/year at European level” Minister Giannini added, “and, in this regard, a key point is to consider the entire European system as a single system.”

“Come for free and you will leave knowing that this is what European infrastructures should tell to the best researchers in the world,” concluded Giannini, as a slogan for the meeting. We know that it represents, at least in Italy, an extremely significant challenge.

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