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What is the place of ideals in higher education and science?

Filipa M. Ribeiro

Ideals help us to see not only the trees or the forest but also the space between the trees. So, what is scientific research compromising?

388 researchers from humanities and social and natural sciences around the globe were asked about their highest ideal as a researcher. Results show that 33% of researchers and teachers from natural sciences (n=189) and 25% researchers from social sciences and humanities (n=199) say they have no ideals regarding their careers or science itself. Europe is the continent with the highest percentage of researchers with “no ideals”, whereas Africa is the continent where the ideals mentioned are more related to knowledge itself and to a common good of local communities (Ribeiro, 2010).

The next question was to know how these ideals influence researcher’s work. I looked into 30 knowledge networks of researchers working in 4 higher education and scientific institutions in Catalonia. Findings showed that the majority of researchers choose their most important ties for their knowledge creation according to human values. The analysis showed a high correspondence between the personal knowledge networks and a permanent structural aspect of knowledge networks that is based on the role played by values in knowledge creation. Amidst the turbulence of academic life, respondents stick to their personal networks whose strongest ties are based on human and scientific values. Thus, scientific and personal values tend to be more appreciated as drivers for strongest ties than collaboration or expertise. However, and not surprisingly, these values and ideals were more highlighted by older researchers than by younger researchers. Scientific generosity, openness, guidance, true friendship, companionship and purposeful research were the main values named by the informants.

In any scientific endeavour or in any education institution structural relationships must have a certain degree of duration and permanence. When these structural relations are embedded in useful and practical human and transdisciplinary ideals, they become the permanence and refuge in every quest for knowledge in face of any conjunctural fluctuation. Structural relations and scientific inquiries embedded in ideals are comparable to the circulatory system of an organism, in which liquids move faster or slower, but those moves don’t imply a deep modification of the veins. That is the permanent structure that entails the circulation and, analogously, that structure is a stable support to the continuous agitation and variability of scientific research and educational practices. This permanence dimension provided by ideals and values plays a crucial role in the characterization of the structural models (as shown in the analysis of their knowledge networks) and complements past and current educational models.

Ideals and values are present when we ask researchers about why they started doing research on a specific topic and also about their working and thinking styles. However, regarding their working styles there is a clear mismatch between what and how they would like to work and how they actually work. This mismatch is a result of several constraints and struggles that researchers face (Rostan &Vaira, 2011[i]). It is also important to notice that ideals and values become subjectified objects that afford layers of professional meaning and significance and undertake symbolic and actual confrontations that have never been intended or even conceived by their creators. The other side of this is raised by the new features of modern education (e.g., the MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the increasing technologization of teaching) that leads to the reciprocal objectification of subjects. Against these struggles, researchers tend to resist or shape their action conceding with something of their own sense of autonomy. This ‘something of their own’ should be, I argue, universal ideals as a means to rise above a conventional research perspective which is unable to make the transition from dualistic analytic categories of subject and object to the familiar complexity of a surrounding world that makes the most of scientific research.

In fact, development ought to be diverse with ad hoc strategies oriented towards defined goals that benefit each and every one. Ideals in higher education can be rewarding if applicable into the criteria to evaluate scientific achievement. Ideals get us in the habit of questioning the status quo by constantly playing devil’s advocate. Taking the contrarian view of a research project or an educational policy or even a theory can be difficult at first, but if we start to question why the author thinks this way and what happened in the sector that triggered this viewpoint, we begin to think more critically about the contents we are teaching, learning and applying. And critical thinkers make greater institutions.


Figure 1: Ideals at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of any innovation system.

Helga Nowotny recently reminded that “excellence requires reforms and the willingness to implement them in the best possible way”. Both in terms of its epistemological and ontological options, Science has sometimes a strange reputation of not really forming part of what ordinary European citizens call “culture”. As a consequence, scientists find themselves out on a limb and there is a serious need to reconstruct the relationship between science and other forms of higher civilisation. Since C.P. Snow the response from scientists and policy-makers has been, at best, clumsy demonstrating that the relationship to other branches of culture has become somewhat distended. Basically, researchers have reacted to public hostility by arguing that science is relevant to the European citizen in terms of added value, where “value” is the financial return on investment which should, in the future, fund our expensive social welfare system in the “knowledge society”. This is not what the European citizen wants to hear, and he can probably guess it is a bit of a pipe dream. The proverbial man in the Clapham omnibus is fully aware of the difficulties of the modern world. What he really wonders is where Science stands with respect to more fundamental values and ideals. Is it inside or outside our heritage and, if inside, how does it relate to our cultural identity? Until this question is clearly answered, the European citizen will continue to harbour doubts. So, is turning ideals into vivid drivers for science and higher education just a vain utopia? It’s up to each one of us to decide.

Filipa M. Ribeiro is a PhD researcher at the University of Porto.

This post was initially published on Europe of Knowledge blog.

[i] Rostan, M., Vaira, M.(2011). “Structuring the field of excellence”, in Rostan, M., Vaira, M. (eds.) Questioning excellence in Higher education. Sense Publishers.

Q&A with Tero Erkkilä (Global University Rankings)

Tero Erkkilä (2013) (ed.) Global University Rankings, Palgrave Macmillan

Global Univ rankings cover

Q1: Why a book on global university rankings?

The first global university rankings were published just a decade ago, but these policy instruments have become highly influential in shaping the approaches and institutional realities of higher education. The rankings have portrayed European academic institutions in a varying light. There is intense reflexivity over the figures, leading to ideational changes and institutional adaptation that take surprisingly similar forms in different European countries.

This book explores the novel topic of global university rankings and their effects on higher education in Europe. The contributions of this edited volume outline different discourses on global university rankings, and explore the related changes concerning European higher education policies, disciplinary traditions and higher education institutions. The contributions in this volume critically assess global university rankings as a policy discourse that would seem to be instrumental to higher education reform throughout Europe.

We chose to write this book as there seemed to be little contextualised analysis of the rankings’ effects. Looking at the changes in Europe, we were able to analyse the rankings’ effects in a particular institutional context, while still being able to make comparisons between country cases.

Q2: Why do rankings receive so much attention and does attention translate into major policy impacts?

There is something persuasive about the numerical presentation of these evaluations that simplifies the complex reality of higher education, making it seemingly easy to compare universities and higher education systems globally. Moreover, the rankings attract media attention, similar to rankings in other domains, such as rankings on corruption or economic competitiveness. In this respect the global university rankings are part of a broader trend of global indicators.

With regards to rankings’ effects, I tend to see this as Foucauldian reflexivity, where policy actors on the EU and national level are abiding to a perceived norm. However, as discussed in the book, it would be too simplistic to label this as outright isomorphism, as the discourse on rankings tends to have national variants, reflecting public values and institutional traditions. There are major policy shifts as a result but the impacts are rather indirect and again conditioned by institutional traditions, as our case studies show.

Q3: What is specific about European reactions to rankings that is different from other world regions?

Europe makes a particularly interesting context for analysis because, as mentioned above, the global rankings have shown European universities in a varying light. This has been damaging for the European self-understanding that stems from the long institutional history of higher education in this context. Moreover, the rankings should be read in the context of global power shifts, where Europe is struggling to keep pace with the United States and Asia in the global economy. As is argued in the book, it is no coincidence that the first global ranking originated from Asia.

Q4: One part of the book analyses the influence of rankings on social sciences and humanities. Does the influence of rankings differ between the disciplines?

Yes, very much. The publication patterns of medicine and natural sciences are best suited for the rankings, whereas social sciences and humanities have been at odds with the rankings. In particular, book publications typical for these disciplines are poorly acknowledged by the rankings. Consequently, these disciplines are under pressure to change their publication patterns. Moreover, there is an issue of language, as the rankings strongly emphasise English language publications. Scholars are now under pressure to publish in English, which is a genuine problem for national non-English journals that are struggling to find articles, most felt in social sciences and humanities.

Q5: What are the main lessons from the book for higher education scholars, universities and policy-makers?

To understand the fundamental characteristics of rankings, one also needs to understand the global economic context in which the rankings are being produced and to what ends. While different conceptualizations apply for the rankings, they can be seen as an incident of transnational policy discourse on modernizing higher education with many sub-discourses that meet in the emphasis of performance. Though the rankings’ power aspects are often portrayed in somewhat totalizing fashion, the actual impacts of rankings are mostly indirect. Moreover, the institutional outcomes of rankings are likely to be conditioned by the institutional traditions, marking also an opening for resisting the rankings.

Nevertheless, there are alarming changes in the academic practices both at institutional and disciplinary levels in Europe that point to the negative effects of global rankings, such as the stratification of HEIs and their homogenization at the cost of diversity, as well as the commodification of higher education. The universities are compelled to reconsider their traditional values and functions, which may have significant negative effects on society, the economy included. The rankings also have a strong potential for producing unintended consequences and counter-finalities that make them problematic measures or means for any reform. For this reason higher education policies in Europe, and elsewhere, should remain highly critical of the simplistic policy feed of global university rankings.

Q6: What would be promising research lines for future studies on global university rankings?

While the methodological limitations and flaws of the rankings have been broadly reported, the field of global university rankings is still developing. There are new types of knowledge products entering the ‘market’ and we are also seeing a shift from rankings to broader evaluation schemes. But the numerical presentation of such evaluations are not likely to go away. Social scientists should critically analyse the figures and also try to find alternatives for the measures. With regards to the rankings’ impacts, we still have a limited time perspective, as the global rankings have only been around for ten years. It is therefore important to analyse the production of rankings on the global level but also make contextualised analyses of their effects on national level, including the mechanisms through which the rankings are influential. At the University of Helsinki we have two projects to focus on the above issues: Policy Instruments and Global Governance (Funded by the Academy of Finland) and Europe in Numbers (Funded by the Helsinki University Network for European Studies). We would be happy to hear from other researchers working on similar topics.

Tero Erkkilä is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki. His research interests include knowledge governance, public institutions and collective identities. He has published on accountability, transparency, public information management, global governance indicators, higher education rankings and EU concepts. His recent publications include Government Transparency (Palgrave Macmillan) and Global University Rankings (editor, Palgrave Macmillan). He is currently heading two research projects on global governance indicators funded by the Academy of Finland and the Helsinki University Network for European Studies.

The Bologna Process model for world regions: Lessons from the Europe of Knowledge

Beverly Barrett

The Bologna Process, inspired by the development of the Europe of Knowledge, has been an example for world regions[i]. The policy implementation experiences from the Bologna Process have been simulated by world regions that value higher education cooperation across countries. Across regions the degree of integration in higher education varies along the policy process from discursive originations to ranging extents of cooperation.

The following are some examples of how to the international policy convergence as undertaken by the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has been applied to other regional integration schemes. The Bologna Process has provided a model for delivering and evaluating higher education for countries in the EHEA and beyond. In Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America there are examples of international cooperation in higher education and research. As an accelerator for globalization in the early 1990s, the political transformations across Central and Eastern Europe provided impetus for globalization of the economy and correspondingly higher education.

The European Commission’s curriculum development initiative Tuning has a program for Africa called “Tuning Africa.” The neighborhood policies of the EU extend into North Africa, which has been an area of heightened interest politically since the Arab Spring in early 2011. Supported by the African Union, the African Higher Education Harmonization and Tuning Project (Tuning Africa 2013) is part of the Africa-EU strategic partnership. To implement the Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015), the African Union Commission has established a framework for harmonization of Higher Education Programmes in Africa.

In South America there are efforts to cooperate in higher education with MercoSur-Educativo. Since its founding in 1991 with the Treaty of Asunción, MercoSur has not experienced the deepening of economic integration on par with the EU. However, even prior to the launch of the Bologna Process in 1999, there were efforts in the 1990s to harmonize higher education systems with MercoSur-Educativo. These preliminary efforts did not formalize institutionally as they did with the Bologna Process. The comparably moderate pace of integration in economics and higher education with MercoSur is even less for the Andean Community that was established in 1969 with the Cartagena Agreement. Some countries have vacillated in their alliances within regional groups in South America, and trade negotiations beyond the region have merited attention.

New trends in regional integration in Latin America are emerging. CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) was formed in 2010, and it is the second largest group of countries in the region after the Organization of American States. UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) was formed in 2008. The Spanish national quality assurance agency ANECA’s work extends beyond Spain to support quality assurance and accreditation in higher education through involvement with RIACES (Ibero-American Network of Accreditation Agencies). The primacy of state sovereignty that may limit regional cooperation in political economy is a trend observed in international politics to a greater extent in Latin America than in the EU.

Pacific coast South American countries, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru, have a westward orientation with the Pacific Alliance partnership formed  in 2011 to have a united position in negotiating trade with Asian countries. Among early agreements have been intentions to establish a joint university system where, as in Europe, students may receive academic credits for their studies in any of the participating countries.

Representatives from ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were present as observers and participants in the Bologna Policy Forum at the EHEA Ministerial Conference in Bucharest in 2012.  In 2005 the ASEAN Ministers of Education embarked upon regional higher education collaboration with the decision to hold ASED (ASEAN Education Ministers’ Meetings). The APQN (Asia Pacific Quality Network), similar to the ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) and EQAR (European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education) for the EHEA, was established to support the national higher education quality assurance agencies in higher education in the region.

Potential collaboration in higher education and research were agenda issues covered in the meeting of the presidents of Mexico and United States in May 2013. Framed on the discursive level as an emerging issue, there are opportunities for mobility of higher education, research, and workforce development between the countries. The rigidities facing mobility of human capital and labor in North America confront a decades-long struggle for immigration reform. The regional economic relationship was formalized with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in effect in 1994, and the economic cooperation leads to opportunities to develop human capital in North America. Overcoming domestic political opposition is necessary to strengthen international mobility of human capital in higher education, research, and labor markets.

The preceding are examples of efforts and ongoing considerations to harmonize higher education policy within regions worldwide. As with the Bologna Process, these are efforts at harmonization, which is a process that is guided by the participating countries, with activities facilitated by regional institutions. Worldwide there are examples of regional integration through higher education that have some reference to the Bologna Process and the EHEA.

Beverly Barrett is a doctoral candidate in International Studies at the University of Miami. Current research interests include international political economy, regional integration, and governance with particular emphasis on education and economic development. She is Associate Editor of the Miami European Union Center of Excellence, and her doctoral dissertation is titled “Political Economy Influences on Implementing the Bologna Process.”


This post was initially published on “Europe of Knowledge” blog.

[i] For more information see Beverly Barrett (2013) “Comparative regional perspectives: The Bologna Process and Higher Education Attainment”, Vol.13, No.11, The Jean Monnet/Robert Schuman paper series, Miami-Florida European Union Center of Excellence.

Building the European Research Area: Joint calls on the eve of Horizon 2020

Ino Agrafioti


An important aim of the European Research Area (ERA) is to facilitate the voluntary coordination among national research funding agencies. While most of the research funding is allocated nationally, the ERA encourages national research funding bodies to set up joint trans-national calls to fund European research networks. Since the launch of ERA in 2000, a number of new trans-national funding instruments have been established and supported by the EU Framework Programmes, such as ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus, the “Article 185” initiatives, the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs).

In order to facilitate joint trans-national calls, political will is needed to change/adjust national funding procedures. The 2013 ERA progress report published last month demonstrated that alignment of national administrative procedures has not advanced as much as it was hoped.


What are joint trans-national research funding calls?

Joint trans-national research funding instruments include schemes such as ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus, the “Article 185” initiatives, the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs).[i]

ERA-NETs were first introduced in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to develop and strengthen the coordination of public research programmes conducted at national or regional level, in this way tackling the issue of fragmentation of the ERA. Given their success and the long-term perspective of this scheme, it was continued in FP7 but was also reinforced with a new instrument, “ERA-NET Plus”, in which Community financial support was provided for “topping-up” the joint trans-national research funding. In Horizon2020, the ERA-NET scheme will take the form of a merger between the former ERA-NET and ERA-NET Plus instruments: in this new instrument (called ERA-NET) it will be compulsory to implement one substantial call and this call will receive top-up funding from the Commission.

The Lisbon treaty brought new instruments, aiming at closer coordination of national R&D programmes. First, measures under Article 185 foresaw the participation of the Community in the joint implementation of national programmes, implying that the participating Member States integrate (rather than simply coordinate) their research efforts by defining and committing themselves to a joint research programme, in which the European Community promotes the voluntary integration of scientific, managerial and financial aspects. Second, the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI, Article 187) are public-private partnerships involving the EU, national and private resources, know-how and research capabilities for a period of many years, with the aim of addressing major issues in areas of global competitiveness and high societal relevance.

More recently, the Ljubljana-process launched Joint Programming (JP) whose main objective was to address common societal challenges. Joint Programming is a strategic approach (and not an instrument), through which a more efficient and more effective public R&D funding in Europe shall be reached. Once the societal challenges of common interest were determined they were transformed into JP Initiatives (JPI) with Strategic Research Agendas aiming to strengthen Europe’s capacity to translate the results of its research into tangible benefits for society and for the overall competitiveness of its economy.

Public funding leverage

In the recent “Report on ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus and JPIs and their joint calls” by the EC, it was stated that the total public funding of research implemented by ERA-NETs, ERA-NET Plus and JPIs between 2004 and 2012 amounts to more than € 2.06 Billion. For the period 2013 – 2015, calls with a total volume between € 845 Million and € 1.2 Billion public funding are currently expected.

This and the fact that the annual public funding leveraged by these instruments is also growing quite steadily are great achievements, but one should ask whether this level of funding is good enough. For example, if one compares the € 455 Million total public funding leveraged by these instruments in 2013 (as according to the report mentioned above) with the EU-27’s Gross domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) for the same year (provisionally estimated at around EUR 257 billion in 2013), then one concludes that only 0.2% of GERD was invested in trans-national projects.

What emerges from such an analysis is that public funding leveraged might not be high enough. This result is most probably a reflection of the recent financial crisis in Europe, with national research budgets having fallen in most EU countries. Nevertheless, this percentage remains a reflection of the level of political will of the Member States to invest in these trans-national projects.


A more targeted approach

An analysis of the evolution of the joint call instruments reflects a shift in the funding policy regarding the ERA-NET instruments. In FP6, calls for ERA-NETs were open to any field of science and technology (beyond the FP6 priorities) and the scheme was implemented through a bottom-up approach, in the sense that no preference to specific research themes or disciplines was given. In FP7, the focus is shifted from the funding of networks to the top-up funding of individual joint calls. The thematic areas are more restricted since in the case of ERA-NETs “bottom up” proposals are accepted only in specific areas corresponding to the Work Programme, whereas for the newly introduced ERA-NET Plus instrument the topics were chosen beforehand.

In Horizon2020, the approach is becoming even more targeted, since funding will be available only if a joint call will be implemented (accompanied with reduced focus on the networking activities) and only in pre-selected areas with high European added value and relevance for Horizon2020. Their aim is an increase in the share of funding dedicated jointly Member States to challenge-driven research and innovation.

There has thus been a clear shift from a “bottom-up and networking-heavy” approach in FP6 to a “targeted and call-dependent” approach in Horizon2020. It is also evident that fundamental research joint calls have suffered from this shift.

The real implementation costs

High interest in implementation of the joint funding instruments was confirmed by the oversubscribed ERALEARN workshop that took place in Brussels last month, aimed at training people responsible of running joint calls. Participants of the workshop were trained on the stages of the call implementation process based on ERALEARN’s online toolbox, introduced to the interesting studies prepared by the ERALEARN team and in parallel discussed the instruments themselves. Such discussions greatly benefited from the fact that participants were a great mixture of newcomers and experienced practitioners.

It was realised early on in the workshop that there is wide variation in the call implementation costs (staff effort for coordination and travel costs for evaluators and staff) between different consortia. It was thus great news that members of the ERALEARN team have already started a much-needed study of the man effort and costs of joint calls. This cost/benefit questionnaire they have prepared is aimed at self-evaluation of the consortia. However, given that the funding provided by the EC for joint call implementation is being decreased in Horizon2020, it could help funding agencies understand what the realistic costs of joint calls are as well as in which ways the efficiency of the calls can be improved.

The analysis of the few data collected so far showed that the joint call implementation costs decrease with experience, i.e. the initial costs of a call are high since the implementation procedures (for the different options see ERALEARN’s toolbox) need to be established, but once this is achieved, the costs exponentially decrease. This is true for the costs for the whole consortium and the costs per partner.

Since each funding consortium is different, it is logical that there will be in the joint call costs as well, but this study provides evidence that once funding agencies learn how to work together, the costs of trans-national calls decrease. This is a very positive result since it implies that there has been a clear benefit for the instruments and funding that has been invested through the Framework Programmes.

Dr. Ino Agrafioti is a Scientific Officer at CNRS, France

This post was originally published at “Europe of Knowledge” blog.

[i] For analysis see also Barre et al. (2013) “Measuring the integration and coordination dynamics of the European Research AreaScience and Public Policy 40: 187–205; Edler, J (2012) “Toward variable funding for international scienceScience, 338(6105), 331-332.

The European Research Area: Beyond Market Politics

Diana Jane Beech

The way the European Union regards science and research is changing. There is an increased emphasis on producing marketable deliverables for financial gain. At the same time, the advent of Horizon 2020 raises important yet often-overlooked questions.

Where is it exactly that European research policy is heading? And is this in line with where it ought to be heading, if it really is to create a ‘new Renaissance’ with the potential to transform the way Europe ‘does’ science for the better and in a way that is sustainable for the long term?

To answer this, attention must first be paid to the extent that the current projected vision for the European Research Area, or ERA, is in danger of moving away from the motivations and expectations of researchers at the grassroots of the European innovation chain.

From Galileo through to Gell-Mann, or from Newton to Einstein, scientists throughout European history have traditionally been driven in their work by curiosity about the world around them and the desire to find answers to life’s great mysteries.

It is this blind and often serendipitous pursuit of knowledge that has been behind many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the modern world.

As such, if researchers are to retain any sense of awe and wonder, or the inspiration and drive that have historically been at the heart of their day-to-day discoveries, it is essential that an emphasis on personal humility is not eclipsed in today’s ERA by policies endorsing only ‘applied’ or ‘targeted’ science.

The European Commission’s senior advisory board on the ERA has already recognised that for the European Union, or EU, to make the transition to a more streamlined ERA requires “fundamental change in the way we think, work and research – indeed a change as great as any in our history”.

In its first public report, it called this change a ‘new Renaissance’, deliberately alluding to earlier revolutions in thought, society and science to underscore the importance of this juncture in European research policy for readdressing the social reality of the EU as we know it.

Yet achieving this projected ‘new Renaissance’ is no mean feat, since effecting policy synergy in the ERA not only requires striking a balance between the respective demands of the market, research communities and society at large, but also creating a strategic, common vision shared by the EU-28, and the various traditions and research cultures thereby represented.

Europe 2020

To realise the ‘new Renaissance’, the EU is set to launch the Horizon 2020 framework programme 2014-20, which is scheduled to supersede the seventh framework programme at the end of this year.

Horizon 2020 will specifically effectuate the ‘Innovation Union’, which has been placed at the very heart of the ‘Europe 2020’ growth strategy, in the hope that it will turn innovative ideas neatly into products and services, and thereby create more jobs and boost growth to ease Europe out of crisis.

Equipped with a larger budget, and a proportion expressly dedicated to strengthening industrial leadership in science, Horizon 2020 encourages a decidedly market-driven approach to research and, as such, suggests a shift away from ‘pure’ knowledge generation towards the innovation of viable products.

Now, more than ever, serious thought must be given to whether the act of alleviating the grand challenges identified as facing Europe should be so directly linked to such a strong push “to bring ideas to the market”.

With the boundaries increasingly blurring between academia, business and industry, there is a strong need to ensure that the ‘essence’ of science and research is not lost to subsidiary pressures to publish and generate profit.

Admittedly, scientific diplomacy has long formed the cornerstone for social progress in the EU – ever since the EURATOM Treaty (1957) used energy research to promote peace and prosperity on the continent in the aftermath of war.

Faced with a new financial downturn, however, the onus is on EU officials to ensure that the ERA will continue to support collaborative, cross-border research with strong societal contributions at its core, and not cave in to the urge to use research for economic ends alone.

The mounting pressure to overcome the financial crisis and to respond to an ever-growing number of grand societal challenges means that the need to complete the ERA is greater than ever before.

However, systems need to be put in place to safeguard and increase trust between policy-makers, scientists and citizens. Careful consideration must be given to ensure that the ERA is formalised in such a way that it simultaneously addresses the needs of all stakeholders, and not just those at the top of the political and commercial game.

After all, it is ‘research’ that is at the heart of the ERA and must remain so if Europe is to stand any chance of effecting a ‘new Renaissance’ with the capacity to transform the role and purpose of science in society for a sustainable future.

Diana Beech is a research associate in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, where she currently manages a project exploring the role and relevance of values to contemporary European science and research policy. Further to this, Diana is the communications coordinator of the European Research Area Collaborative Research Network, generously supported by the Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies, and also a founding member of the European Commission-initiated ‘Voice of the Researchers’ network intended to provide researchers with a channel through which to influence the future of the ERA.

This article was originally published in the University World News on 5 October 2013 (Issue 290) and also appears in the Europe of Knowledge blog.

Integrating Social Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges: Will it work?

Thomas König and Katja Mayer

Reports from various parts of Europe confirm urgency of the topics put forward by the conference “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” held last week 23-24 September 2013 in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU Presidency. On twitter alone, the conference hashtag #horizonsSSH was used more than 600 times. The conference was widely covered in traditional and new media (see Guardian, Der Standard, Liberation, lzinios, Net4Society, Research Europe, Science Guide and Hypothèses). In preparation for the conference, a number of stakeholder organizations such as the League of European Research Universities LERU and Science Europe published dedicated reports on contribution of social sciences and humanities (SSH) to solving societal challenges.

The conference highlighted once more that world-class European SSH are indispensable in generating knowledge about the dynamic changes that transform our societies. They form the basis of the Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges Pillar and their integration with other sciences will broaden our understanding of innovation, driven not only by technological advances, but also by societal expectations, values and demands. The Vilnius Declaration nicely elaborates crucial principles that form the basis for the integration of the SSH in Horizon 2020: defining research problems in novel ways; carefully considering the working conditions of all research partners and setting up efficient collaboration across different disciplines and research fields; fostering interdisciplinary training and research; and connecting social values and research evaluation.

However, such principles also reveal some concerns. One is, that the rhetoric of “integrating” the SSH into the “Societal Challenges”, predefined by European Commission (EC), European Council and the European Parliament, is not (yet?) matched by the institutional means to realize this goal. The Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, as well as General Director Robert-Jan Smits both emphasized their good will; but the EC Directorate General (DG) Research and Innovation alone consists of many levels of decision-making (and there are also several other DGs involved). It turned out also that, in many respects, the course of Horizon 2020 is already set for the upcoming two years, without any real change to the procedures or the group of persons involved.

Considering those facts, it became very clear during the conference that “integrating SSH”, despite being a noble goal, is also a risky undertaking. It is rhetorically attractive to policy makers, while its success depends on two crucial aspects. One is the permissiveness of the responsible units within the European Commission that are tasked to carry out the program. This often breaks down to personalities. We may expect very different results from different EC bureaucratic units (i.e., concerning different challenges), pending on the willingness to really integrate representatives of the SSH communities. The other is the persistence of getting involved by people who represent those SSH communities. Continued representation requires structures and people with authority to speak for the communities. Currently, there is neither a robust structure established at European level, nor are there people in view who would preside over such a structure.

After the conference, the question “what follows?” is more crucial than anything else. The Vilnius Declaration is clearly a sign to policy makers that the SSH communities are ready to take up the challenge. But the lack of structural and ideational premises makes it difficult to plan and design contributions. The conference report – currently under preparation and expected to be published in December 2013 – will point out upcoming tasks and the willingness to take up and implement those tasks. From a researcher’s perspective, of course, what is happening right now is thrilling: Can a large, but diversely organized and widely under-informed field such as SSH come at grips with research policy in relatively short time? Will community based efforts to represent SSH lead to emergence of new structures (or revival of existing ones) in order to take action? Does integration remain superficial policy rhetoric (the “ritualisation trap”), or can real change be achieved? The next weeks, months and years will tell. However the message still echoing from the conference is clear: “Take the lead.”

Conference Website

Twitter hashtag: #horizonsSSH

Coming Events: “Achieving Impact: Socio-Economic Sciences and Humanities in Horizon 2020” Feb 26-27, 2014, Athens, Greece

Dr. Thomas König and Dr. Katja Mayer are assistants to the Conference Steering Committee.


This post was originally published on “Europe of Knowledge” blog.

Can regions shape university performance?

Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo

During the last twenty years researchers and policymakers have focused their discourses on the important role that universities play in stimulating the development of regions under the umbrella concept of “knowledge economies” [i]. Universities contribute to the region generating research and consultancy income, embedding knowledge in students and employees, upgrading regional business environments and potentially improving this process of regional value capture [ii]. This approach has emphasized the vision of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as active drivers of regional economic growth and innovation policy change.


To fulfill these expectations universities have embarked on many activities, which have increased their complexity and the necessity to redefine their roles. At regional level, HEIs do not only contribute to creation of skilled human capital, but also generate technological capital and knowledge stock. This conjecture promotes university involvement in regional economic development in addition to the traditional tripartite missions of teaching, research and transfer activities. But, is the expectation of universities engaging in all of these roles simultaneously realistic? Should the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model be prevalent in the Higher Education Sector, even more in times of economic crisis? More specifically, are there any differences between particular capabilities universities seek to contribute to their regions? Is there space for alternative university models?


To solve these questions it is important to ‘turn the tables’ and adopt an alternative perspective where not only university influences the region, but where regions shape university performance as well [iii]. This means that activities of universities are significantly influenced by the context and the environment in which the university is geographically located and by other actors involved in the innovation system. Adopting this view, we are assuming that if universities want to fulfill their roles, they need to increase their interaction with non-academic agents at regional level. This allows the university to build its own strategy of differentiation and specialization based on its specific capacities as well as taking into account the needs of the environment. Following the notation of the European Commission, we propose that this allows HEIs to create their own Smart Specialization Strategy (S3) and become drivers of innovation policy change and economic growth under the Europe 2020 Strategy. Even more important is the adaptation of different policies to emphasize the role of universities and their strategic priorities at regional level.


But is there any case where a region has shaped university’s strategy? We are going to present the case of the Mondragon University (MU) as an example where the university has exploited the characteristics of the environment as a competitive advantage to emphasize its specific regional role. MU is a cooperative university, that is, an autonomous association for voluntary cooperation with a view to preserve values such as self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. It is located in Guipúzcoa, one of the three regions in the Basque Country (Spain). Founded in 1997, it is part of one of the largest cooperative groups, called Mondragon Corporation. MU was born from the demand side: to address the weaknesses of Mondragon Cooperative Model.


Under the specific characteristics of the Basque Science and Technology policy, the contribution of MU to its regional innovation system has been mainly through skilled workers with high levels of labor market participation and employment with the right qualifications, as well as through life-long education courses up-skilling employees for new tasks at the cooperatives [iv]. The development of research highly oriented to companies’ needs allows MU to have a large number of research collaborative programs with different firms operating in the Basque Country. The development of this strategy takes into account other agents in the innovation system and ensures interaction activities. MU framework for action is agreed with all the agents involved in order to respond to the challenges and needs of the environment concerning education and knowledge transfer [v].


Recent news articles [vi, vii] pointed out the case of MU as an alternative to the state-funded public university. But is this case exportable outside the socioeconomic characteristics and the historical background of the Basque context? Is the case of Silicon Valley in San Francisco or the MIT in Massachusetts transferable? Mondragon can be understood as an example of regional needs guiding a specialization strategy, and the university becoming active actor contributing to its region.


Thus, this approach creates a virtuous circle where universities are understood as drivers of innovation policy change and, at the same time, regional innovation policy guides university’s strategy for specialization.

Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo is a PhD student at INGENIO (CSIC-UPV) in Spain. More information on her research can be found here and here.


The first draft of this work was presented at the workshop ‘Regional Innovation Policy Dynamics: Actors, Agency and Learning’ in Manchester (UK), 23-24 September 2013.



[i] OECD (2007). Higher Education and Regions. Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged. OECD. Paris.

[ii] Benneworth, P. & Hospers, G. (2007). “The new economic geography of old industrial regions: universities as global- local pipelines” Environment and Planning C: Government & Policy, 25(5), pp. 779-802.

[iii] Casper, S. (2013). “The spill-over theory reversed: The impact of regional economies on the commercialization of university science” Research Policy, 42(8), pp. 1313-1324.

[iv] OECD (2011). OECD Reviews of Regional Innovation: Basque Country, Spain.

[v] Wright, S.; Greenwood, D. & Boden, R. (2011). “Report on a fi eld visit to Mondragón University: a cooperative experience/experiment”. Learning and Teaching, 4(3), pp. 38-56.

[vi] Tremlett, G. (2013). “Mondragon: Spain’s giant co-operative where times are hard but few go bust”. The Guardian 7 March 2013.

[vii] Matthews, D. (2013). “Inside a cooperative university”. The Higher Education Debate 29 August 2013.


This post was originally published on Europe of Knowledge blog.