Thought Leaders
May 24, 2023

Science Europe: Building an open network for researchers in Europe with global perspectives

Science Europe represents major public organisations that fund groundbreaking research across Europe, promoting open, collaborative research networks within – but not limited to – the European research arena. Obvious barriers to research collaboration include student mobility. There are also many lesser-known barriers, which Science Europe aims to combat, in part through more effective science communication. Research Outreach was privileged to speak with Lidia Borrell-Damián, Secretary General, on her esteemed career in research funding and collaboration.

Breaking down the barriers to enable cross-collaboration in scientific research is of paramount importance. In recent years, institutional mobility across the European research community has been threatened by well-known policies like Brexit and, more recently, the war in Ukraine. However, there are many lesser-known hurdles to promoting collaborative research, including the diversity of scientific and legal environments, budget and funds availability, types of programmes, access and diversity in science, and administrative flexibility. In other words, researchers may find it difficult to freely collaborate across borders, institutions, and disciplines – an area which needs addressing.

Research Outreach was privileged to speak with Lidia Borrell-Damián, Secretary General of Science Europe, on the present state and future potential for collaborative research within the European research arena. Borrell-Damián holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Barcelona, and has built an esteemed career around industry and policy development, research funding and collaboration with global perspectives, which she continues in her role at Science Europe.

What is Science Europe and how did you become involved in the organisation?

Science Europe is the association representing major public organisations that fund and perform excellent, groundbreaking research in Europe. We bring together the expertise of some of the largest and best-known research organisations in the world to jointly push the frontiers of how scientific research is produced and delivers benefits to society. We advocate science and the scientific community to help build the European research area and shape the global scientific agenda.

Academic collaboration should begin at tertiary and higher education institutions to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and STEM-related subjects.

You hold a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Barcelona. How has your background in this field supported your career in research funding and collaboration?

As an Assistant Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Barcelona, I had the opportunity to interact with a number of local chemical companies and representatives from policy bodies, which continued to a certain extent during my post-doctoral periods in the USA (North Carolina State University) and Canada (University of Western Ontario). When in Barcelona, I also worked for two years in a company that manufactured household cleaning products, which provided me with good insight into the challenges of turning research results into innovative products. Subsequently, as Research Director of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, I started to develop my profile in research policy, which progressed further since I joined the European University Association (EUA), Brussels, in 2006. All in all, my experience in chemical engineering research, coupled with my experience in industry and policy development has led me to research funding and collaboration, with global perspectives.

What challenges does Science Europe face as an organisation promoting trans-institutional collaborative research?

Science Europe promotes the development of tools to support cross-border collaboration and provides its member organisations with a platform to exchange knowledge and practices to continuously improve collaboration mechanisms and to develop new solutions.

Lidia Borrell-Damián

Specifically, the promotion of collaborative trans-national research faces several challenges linked to the diversity of scientific and legal environments. Hurdles include budget and funds availability, type of programme (bottom-up or thematically open), and administrative flexibility (eg, to combine different decision timelines) to mention a few.

In this context, Science Europe supported 12 of its members in the development of Weave, a cross-European initiative to support collaborative trans-national research projects. Weave allows the development of multilateral research projects involving two or more funding agencies. It aims to simplify the submission and selection procedures of research proposals by researchers from up to three different countries, through simplified submission and evaluation procedures and a reduced administrative burden. Launched in December 2020, Weave brings together 12 national and regional research funders, with the possibility to include other funders in the future.

How are relationships between Science Europe and its partner organisations established and maintained?

As an organisation promoting collaboration between research institutions, Science Europe seeks to integrate the multinational perspectives and experiences of its member organisations to develop strategic thought leadership on European (R&I policies and practices and on the role of science in and for society.

One of the major challenges Science Europe faces in its day-to-day work is to understand when it is beneficial to promote member alignment, while maintaining flexibility, so as not to infringe on the organisation’s autonomy.

Science Europe seeks to integrate the multi-national perspectives and experiences of its member organisations to develop strategic thought leadership on European R&I policies and practices.

Moreover, dealing with the diversity of member organisations (by type, size, mission, country, etc) on the one hand constitutes a great challenge. On the other hand, however, this diversity contributes to the richness of Science Europe’s activities and leads to results that transcend individual members.

Science Europe encourages open communication among researchers to inspire effective science communication.

The activities of Science Europe are carried out through the commitment and joint effort of several mechanisms working together within the organisation, whose aim is to promote sharing, collaboration and alignment between member organisations. These include the governance mechanisms, the Governing Board and the General Assembly, and also working groups and task forces that play an advisory role to the Governing Board and act as discussion forums, coordinated and supported by the Science Europe office.

We currently have six working groups addressing our priority areas: High Level Policy Network on the European Research Area and Cross-Border Collaboration, Research Culture, Open Science, Communication, Green and Digital Transition, and Horizon Europe.

How does Science Europe approach communicating science to society at large, and to what end?

Science communication has emerged as a priority topic in its own right for Science Europe, in the framework of the priority to ‘strengthen the voice of science in and for society’. In June 2022, we published a position statement that aligns our member organisations in the initiation of actions that contribute to fostering better and more effective science communication. These include: collecting successful examples of science communication initiatives; promoting the development of institutional tools for researchers to better communicate research, such as toolkits, guidelines, training activities, and the integration of science communication into funding schemes; and building partnerships with science communication stakeholders to address misinformation.

Together with our members, we envision a science communication system that considers science communication as an important part of the research culture we want to build and embeds science communication in a research framework based on open science, ethical standards, and renewed research assessment practices.

Climate change and digitalisation are highly complex, knowledge-demanding societal challenges, and science can, and should, play its part to support decision-makers in navigating these complexities.

With the Working Group on Communication, we aim to organise a high-level event at the beginning of 2024 to highlight the importance of science communication in research processes and raise awareness of the need to address it more formally in policy making.

How does collaborative research and science policy serve the European research community and the public interest more widely?

As part of our priority to strengthen the role and contribution of science in tackling societal challenges, we recently published a report mapping the existing funding instruments and interdisciplinary platforms of our member organisations engaged in tackling climate change and digitalisation (‘Interdisciplinary Research for the Green and Digital Transition’). Mapping the interdisciplinary research activities addressing these societal challenges is the first step. Then, by scaling up, we can increase the societal impact of our research activities. We know there is a willingness to accelerate efforts to mitigate climate change, and tackling challenges and benefits from opportunities from digitalisation and hope this study helps hasten these efforts.

A second major study focuses on ‘Science-Policy in Action: Insights for the Green and Digital Transition’. It maps activities of Science Europe’s member organisations for science-informed policy-making. With this, we will develop new guidelines on how to improve the science-policy interactions. Climate change and digitalisation are highly complex, knowledge-demanding societal challenges. Science can, and should, play its part to support decision-makers in navigating these complexities. This study aims to recognise them to further improve these interactions.

Having the freedom to openly collaborate with peers is essential for pushing the borders of original research.

How does Science Europe aim to shape the European research arena, and what part does the UK play in this?

National research organisations are key contributors to the organisation, funding, and performance of research. They play an important role in the development and implementation of research policies (individually and collaboratively), while ensuring the sustainability of the R&I system as a whole. As such, they contribute to implementing the European research area (ERA) policy agenda and advancing the ERA objectives at the national level – such as promoting open science, mobility, or cross-border collaboration.

The member organisations of Science Europe have unique competences, knowledge, and experience that should inform and shape policy developments at European level, including the development of the European Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation.
Science Europe has become a privileged interlocutor with the European institutions and is therefore in a position to facilitate the process of shaping the European Research Area. It is an active observer in the ERA Forum, the European Commission expert group overseeing the development of the ERA.

With regard to the UK’s role in Science Europe’s activities, it must be said that the UK has always been strategic in advancing R&I policies. Collaboration with UKRI (a member of Science Europe since 2011) has proven fruitful and productive over time.

As an association, Science Europe has always monitored the negotiations regarding the UK and Switzerland’s association to the Horizon Europe Framework Programme.

Early last year, Science Europe also supported the Stick to Science initiative, which called on all parties to put scientific collaboration before politics, to progress towards the full association of Switzerland and the UK with Horizon Europe.

Attending trans-institutional, collaborative events can help inspire the continued development of thought leadership.

How does Science Europe respond to current European research and innovation programmes, particularly in relation to Horizon Europe?

Science Europe aims to facilitate the Horizon Europe policy dialogue. Indeed, the association works with policy makers to ensure that the contributions of its members are integrated into the implementation of the programme.

In particular, Science Europe is committed to defending the annual programme budget to ensure that the minimum funding is at least at the level of the ceilings indicated in the multiannual financial framework. We also provide feedback on approaches tested at national level through the experience of its members. This helps to inform decisions on the development and implementation of new initiatives developed in Horizon Europe.
In addition, Science Europe informs and supports its members through advocacy activities, which aim to:
• encourage open access to research results and data sharing,
• develop excellence in all countries of the European research area,
• strengthen co-operation with public sector partners by bringing together R&I programmes and cross-border investments for the benefit of R&I, and
• contribute to the objectives of the European research area and complement national programmes and initiatives.

What measures has Science Europe introduced to support research communities in crisis? What is the aim of the recently established International Centre for Mathematics, Ukraine?

Science Europe has taken several initiatives to support researchers in Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Science Europe member organisations have undertaken a wide variety of actions, ranging from offering shelter and employment to displaced Ukrainian researchers to providing financial support to scientists in Ukraine and launching joint calls with research organisations in Ukraine.

Our mission is to define long-term perspectives for the European research system, identifying and championing good practices that exist within our members and other research organisations.

In addition, Science Europe welcomed the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) as a member in May 2022, and I am a member of their international advisory board.

With the NRFU, we organised an event on the ‘Professionalisation of research management and European integration’ on 21 March, as part of the second ISC/ALLEA Conference on the crisis in Ukraine. The aim was to bring together the perspectives of Ukrainian and European stakeholders and institutions to investigate ways to support the Ukrainian research system.

The Ukrainian research community is at the forefront of world-leading research in mathematics, and in Autumn 2022 the International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine was registered. Science Europe congratulates the team behind this initiative for setting up such a promising research institution during the war and for bringing together an impressive group of mathematicians. We look forward to collaborating with the Centre to further reinforce ties between the Ukrainian and European research systems.

Funding organisations must be responsive to crises to offer flexible support for researchers in their respective circumstances.

What are the future goals of Science Europe?

Science Europe is at the mid-term of its current strategy and so, in the coming years, will keep its focus on three core priorities. First, we will shape European policy developments. Second, we will contribute to the evolution of research culture. Finally, we will strengthen the role and contribution of science in tackling societal challenges.

Science Europe will continue to be the voice of research funding and performing organisations in Europe towards our vision of a European Research Area with optimal conditions to support talented individuals, quality research, and effective research and innovation systems. In this role, our mission is to define long-term perspectives for the European research system, identifying and championing good practices that exist within our members and other research organisations, ultimately working to ensure high quality research for the benefit of all. We will also continue to act as an enabler for collective structures and processes that promote change at the European level and beyond (such as CoARA, the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment). Science Europe is excited to continue to shape the global scientific agenda.

This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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