Major Challenges in a Tense Political Environment

The European Science and Innovation Councils met in Vilnius in mid-May. The meeting was characterised by the relationship between civil and military research. Increased international competition is also putting the advisory bodies under pressure.

The tense political situation in Europe was clearly noticeable in Vilnius. Security considerations following the so-called Zeitenwende (‘turning point in history’) were at the centre of many discussions. The location could not have been better chosen, as Lithuania is a Baltic state whose independence from the Soviet Unio dates back only a short time and which has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in the EU and NATO. It should also be remembered that the Belarusian border is 40 kilometres from Vilnius and Kaliningrad is a Russian military enclave. As a result, the level of concern in Vilnius, as in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe, is high and expressions of solidarity with Ukraine are extremely present in everyday life.

Civilian research and military innovation

Various countries are currently working on their strategy for strengthening knowledge security and clarifying the relationship between basic civilian research and innovation for military purposes. The Netherlands, for example, will be publishing a dedicated report later this year. In view of the pacifist tradition of German universities, a little-noticed position paper published by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in March of this year also raises eyebrows. Among other things, it states that “the – sometimes – strict separation between civilian and military research in Germany” should be scrutinised. It points to the USA and Israel, which “successfully utilize synergies to translate research into technological innovation in a combined civil and military ecosystem”.

Securing a sustainable and secure energy supply and other key technologies for overcoming the consequences of climate change are also part of the task lists of several Science and Innovation Councils. In addition, there are issues that have long preoccupied all Science and Innovation Councils. These include the appropriate and economical financing of research infrastructures in light of the new challenges associated with big data and computing capacities in the wake of the rapid developments of artificial intelligence. Related to this, the development of capacities and competences in the area of Open Research Data (ORD) is also of great concern.

Developing a common understanding between the various stakeholders is not easy, as the experience in Switzerland with its round table on the research infrastructure roadmaps shows. While the original plan was to develop a common approach for all disciplines by 2027, it has become clear that this goal cannot be achieved until 2031 at the earliest.

Figure 1: Heads of the European Science Councils’ Secretariats (Vilnius 2024)

Improving the quality of funding decisions

Various Councils have also dealt with the possibilities of formalising criteria for funding decisions by research institutions and projects and further increasing their quality. In principle, all countries represented – including Switzerland – orientate themselves on the Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment of the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA). Differences exist with regard to the importance of metric quality criteria compared to expert assessments by international panels. There is broad consensus on the intention to strengthen research impact, although this again raises questions about its measurability.

In general, the discussions have revealed that throughout Europe, all education and research systems are subject to great dynamism. This is partly due to changes in the composition of political decision-makers and reforms in the target-setting, organisation and management of education and research activities in times of increased international competition. This dynamic also requires increased agility and openness on the part of the institutions and advisory bodies in the ERI system. Against this background, regular exchange and international networking, such as the meetings of the European Science Councils twice a year, can make a valuable contribution.


More information on the meeting of the European Science Councils

The secretariats of the Science Councils of various European countries met in Vilnius on 16 and 17 May 2024 to prepare for the annual meeting with the presidencies in autumn. The event was used for an exchange on the most important developments and ongoing projects. A joint declaration on the “Importance of European and national policies to attract non-European STEM talent to Europe“ was also adopted.

The demands contained therein roughly correspond to the recommendations of the SSC on postdoctoral researchers. The SSC, however, did not limit itself to talents in the STEM field and primarily aimed at keeping those third-country nationals who have graduated from Swiss universities in Switzerland and to utilise their potential.