Alex Schiphorst, Science Communication and Policy Officer discusses the vital role of chemistry when it comes to the future of Europe
A significant part of European heritage and history lies in its rich history of pioneering discoveries and research in science and in the field of chemistry. Over the centuries, European chemists developed practices and theories, as well as vast networks of collaboration between themselves, between institutions and between countries. This central science was soon understood to have implications far and wide, ultimately impacting everything around us. Europe today continues to remain a leader in knowledge creation across an extensive range of research areas.
More recently, the United States, together with China and Japan have become scientific powerhouses with ambitious visions for the future of research and innovation. EU statistics show that the gross domestic expenditure on research and development in the EU in 2015 was 2.04%, just below China’s 2.07%, but lagging behind the U.S’s 2.79% and Japan’s 3.29% – let alone South Korea’s 4.22%. The EU’s Europe 2020 strategy adopted in 2010 to aim for 3.00% of GDP for research and development by 2020 is unlikely to be achieved.
The failure to push forward on clear objectives and to strengthen Europe’s budgets for scientific research and innovation is not without consequences and although Europe continues to be a leading centre of expertise and knowledge in many fields, it is being outdone by increasingly stiff competition.
It is in such a context that EuChemS, the European Chemical Society – an umbrella organisation representing national chemical societies and by extension over 150,000 scientists – was glad to see a new level of ambition and vision expressed by the European Commission and the European Parliament in their proposals for the next EU research framework programme, Horizon Europe. The political agreement reached between negotiators for the European Parliament and national governments on Horizon Europe was met by an overwhelming vote in favour by the European Parliament. The move sends a strong signal to the negotiators of the next EU budget of the importance of science, research and innovation in the future of Europe.
The European Commission’s proposal for a €100 billion budget, followed by the European Parliament’s wish for a €120 billion budget, would in effect make this the biggest research and innovation programme ever in the EU – but it is a figure that still falls short of the €180 billion advocated for by most science and research institutions and organisations, universities and researchers. The future of the budget is not entirely clear, however, and it is with the next European Parliament that the negotiations will be conducted.
The chemical sciences play a central role in helping develop answers to a wide range of issues, whether related to health, the environment, climate, energy, agriculture, food safety and beyond. The proposal for ‘Missions’ within Horizon Europe (high-profile initiatives intended to have a transformative impact on challenges European citizens face) was a welcome novelty. Five mission themes have already been agreed between the European Parliament and the Council, including targets to fight cancer, adapting to climate change, healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters, smart, climate-neutral cities and soil health and food. The chemical sciences will have an important part to play, being an essential part of most research within these fields.
Though focused workshops, EuChemS has aimed to demonstrate the concrete role the chemical sciences can play in providing advice and support to policymakers. By bringing together representatives from the European institutions with scientists and stakeholders, we offer a platform on which views can be successfully shared and discussed.
Recent workshops have included a look into the contentious debate over the potential risks of glyphosate, as well as the latest innovative measures aimed at providing a cure for Parkinson’s disease. A workshop held in March this year spotlighted the employability of chemists and the need to better enhance support and network-building between academia and industry. The message will strongly resonate with Horizon Europe’s foreseen partnerships.
For quality science, ample opportunities for researchers and greater innovation, the right policy framework that encourages scientific discovery and experimentation is needed. The scientific strength of Europe also lies in cooperation between scientists from different countries, each of them demonstrating quality expertise in their various research fields.
Together, European countries can successfully compete with the research and innovation capacity of such countries as the United States or China. One of the major assets of EU research framework programmes in the past has been the opportunity for non-EU countries to take part. In view of the looming departure of the United Kingdom from the EU, EuChemS is concerned that few details have so far emerged on the status that will be given to the UK, as well as other third countries in the Horizon Europe programme. Recent findings demonstrate that greater collaboration between countries results in more impactful and quality scientific output.
At stake is also the mobility of Europe’s researchers – who increasingly rely on the ability to meet their peers, travel to conferences, work in collaborative projects.
As Horizon Europe takes shape, EuChemS has also contributed to the debate on another major change currently rocking the scientific world, namely, the move towards open science and open access publishing. The field of chemistry will be strongly transformed by such processes. But the transition to open access, also a core tenet of Horizon Europe, needs to be carefully approached. The consequences of a rushed transition, or one that does not take into account the global landscape could harm European science. EuChemS has, through a Position Paper, which strongly encourages stakeholder cooperation and highlights the vital role played by learned societies in shaping scientific knowledge production.
For chemistry and science to thrive, policymakers need to ensure that the correct policy framework is put into place, that adequate budgets are planned and that mobility and collaboration across borders are encouraged. Horizon Europe has the potential to significantly alter the current state of research and innovation in Europe – but ambition and resolve will be essential.