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Horizon 2020: Science with a Con-science

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Diana Jane Beech

A high-level round table of important players in the European Research Area took place earlier this month to discuss the ethics and values that should lie at the heart of the forthcoming Horizon 2020 programme. At stake is the future of European research.

The European Research Area, or ERA, is bracing itself for a major change on the ‘horizon’. On 1 January 2014, the way the European Union (EU) selects and supports science projects will be superseded by the ‘Horizon 2020’ framework programme.

Equipped with a long-range budget of over €70 billion, Horizon 2020 can already lay claim to being Europe’s largest research programme.

With ‘Excellent Science’ clearly earmarked as one of its three priority areas, Horizon 2020 specifically seeks to raise the level of excellence in Europe’s science base and to foster a steady stream of world-class research, primarily to create new jobs and growth in Europe, and to secure the EU’s long-term competitiveness.

Over the course of the next seven years, then, hundreds of thousands of researchers and entrepreneurs in the EU – together with their partners across the globe – will receive funding to carry out frontier research of the highest quality in both academia and industry.

The intention is to open up new and promising fields of innovation, while working to overcome many of the world’s ‘grand challenges’ such as pandemics, climate change, security threats, and food and energy shortages.

Values and ethics

The strategic importance of science to the EU’s political agenda is clear.

Yet, while European officials and stakeholders in the research area are busily counting down to the launch of Horizon 2020, has anybody spared sufficient thought for what the role and place of values and ethics will be in the EU’s new research programme?

Until now, the focus of policy discussions has been firmly fixed on the potential of the new framework programme to break down barriers to create a genuine single European market for knowledge. Little thought has been given to defining and maintaining the ethical boundaries of European research that are so vital to its future flourishing and success.

A select group of leaders in Europe’s research and innovation community are, however, beginning to change all this and put attention back on the ‘big’ questions inherent to European science.

As recently as 5 November, some 30 ‘big names’ in the ERA got together in a high-level roundtable – the first of its kind dedicated to discussing the most pressing questions of values and ethics in the construction of ERA policy.

Forming part of a wider research project run by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, in the UK, the workshop was generously hosted by the Norwegian Mission to the EU under the auspices of Science Business.

The purpose of the day was to bring together leading figures from academia and industry, with members of the European parliament and scientific advisors, to reflect on the core values that are needed to drive European innovation in the ‘right’ direction for the future – and, ultimately, to draft an ethical charter for European research.

ERA’s moral purpose

Acknowledging the fact that Europe’s larger pot of public funding for research brings with it an increased number of ethical quandaries, participants were asked to think seriously about what sort of projects the EU should be funding, under what terms, and for whose benefits. At issue in the debate were the broader values of European science, and not merely its economic or social value.

As such, discussions brought to the fore some of the biggest questions surrounding the nature of Europe’s growing ‘knowledge economy’, as participants grappled to define the moral purpose of the ERA: Where is it going? Where should it be going? And what is needed to keep it on the ‘right’ track for the future?

Specific questions were asked about Horizon 2020 funds. In particular, participants debated whether the money should be used to support excellent research wherever it may be in the EU, or whether it should be distributed among the EU-28 and its respective research communities according to shared principles of fairness and equality.

Questions were also raised about the wider purpose of the money – specifically whether it should be used to promote research that generated ‘pure’ knowledge, or to support only those projects that clearly demonstrated European ‘added value’ such as the creation of new jobs, products and services.

Dichotomies of modern-day research dominated discussions, and participants debated at length the issues raised by private gain versus public good, trust versus accountability, and freedom versus solidarity.

Central to all of these issue clusters were questions of responsibility. For example, what responsibility, if any, do ERA policy-makers have to ensure that Europe’s research outputs are used for the good of the wider society?

To what extent do researchers receiving EU funds, and their institutions, share this responsibility? And how do we ensure a basic level of scientific integrity, particularly in the light of Horizon 2020’s emphasis on collaborations across borders, disciplines and sectors?

The detailed results of the round table are due to be published in an official report by Science Business at the end of this month. The results will form the basis of a new charter for European research that seeks to ensure the aims of Europe’s new framework programme remain as holistic as its intended approach.

The future and success of European science policy is about much more than science itself. It stems from a rich post-war history of scientific diplomacy continually bringing people together for purposes of peace and prosperity and the common good.

To move effectively into the future, then, Horizon 2020 needs to embrace this value-driven approach, not simply developing Europe’s science, but developing Europe’s con-science as well.

* Dr Diana Jane Beech is a research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, UK, where she is currently working on a project exploring the role and relevance of values in the European Research Area, or ERA. She is also an active member of the ‘Voice of the Researchers’ multipliers group and the communications coordinator of a collaborative research network dedicated to the study of the ERA.

This article was originally published in the University World News, Issue No:297. It also appeared on the Ideas on Europe blog.

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