THE TOPIC AND THE APPROACH
The approach adopted for the topics of research and health, two especially sensitive topics in light of the current pandemic, found an inspiring perspective in the words pronounced last year by Ursula von der Leyen at the EU Parliament: “I am convinced that while we may be sitting further apart than usual, we must work closer together than ever before [...] None of us can do it alone and certainly no Member State can handle this crisis on their own. Because in this crisis, and in our Union more generally, it is only by helping each other that we can help ourselves.”
Arguably, both research and health are sectors where the EU is not playing a leading role worldwide and where significant improvements could be made. Taking also into account the many criticisms towards the EU Commission in light of the management of the vaccine campaign, proposals made by this roundtable played a particularly delicate role. In order to strengthen the position of the EU in those fields, participants mainly focused on the crucial aspects of education, solidarity and coordination.
RESEARCH: YES-FP & JUNIOR ERC GRANTS
Europe seems to suffer from a lack in its research output and part of the table was purposely focused on this theme. The key question was how it was possible to design a scheme that was both impactful, meaning that it could have an effect on EU’s research output, and that could be easily implemented.
The problem with research in the EU is multi-faceted and cannot be easily explained. Leaving aside issues related to the share of EU budget devoted to it, EU is lagging behind some other major economies in terms of patents per unit of GDP, as shown in a recent report of the WIPO. And this lag is not limited to the number of patents, but the share of national GDPs devoted to R&D is considerably lower in Europe vis-à-vis other industrialised countries.
Other problems concern the so-called brain drain and its effect within Europe and with respect to other countries of the world. Few opportunities for early-career researchers, small budgets and low doctoral pays are key factors that push people to go out of the EU during the first years of their career. This phenomenon creates a loss both in economic capital, as other countries will benefit from these researchers, and in knowledge capital as the knowledge they create will be firstly available elsewhere. And in a world where the first comers enjoy incommensurate benefits - look at the advantage with Pfizer vaccines in the US - time is crucial.
Keeping in mind these main issues that affect EU’s research world, the table made two key proposals which aim not only at affecting the overall European research output, but are directed to young researchers. The first proposal is the so-called Young European Scientist Fellowship Program (YES-FP). It entails two programs, one for students aged 9-13 and the other one for older students (15-18), which aim at pushing STEM education and at directly engaging students in research projects. Through competitions, at the national level for younger students and at the European level for older ones, it tries to generate some stimuli for students so that they get directly involved in research ideas. In addition, the competitions would be accompanied by workshops held by scholars and researchers so that students can broaden their horizons on a given topic. Cherry on top: older students would have the opportunity to mentor younger students on some topics.
The second proposal was the extension of the ERC grants to younger researchers, in particular to university students. The American National Science Foundation has a program, called “Research experience for undergraduates”, which offer grants to student to carry on their research project. We want to introduce it also in Europe and make it part of the ERC grants, and it would thus function in the same way. In addition to grant itself, we would want to introduce also a sort of bursary for students from low socio-economic status.
HEALTH: SHAREU & THE COORDINATION COMMITTEE
While the proposals advanced for the research sphere focused on education, those referring to health recalled the values of solidarity and coordination.
As for solidarity, given the episodes of medical gear shortages in Member States during the pandemic and the appreciated cases of help from extra-EU countries, the roundtable proposed the creation of a cooperation system named SharEU. It consists of a mechanism operating on an opt-out basis, with Member States being automatically enrolled but having the option of leaving the program if they wish to do so with the aim of increasing the participation rate in the program and thereby allowing as to allow adhering EU countries to support each other in terms of health equipment, ICU and medical personnel.
When adhering, each country should declare the most urgent needs and what it would be willing to supply in case of necessity:
a) Medical gears: A database with medical gears per capita supply should be available for every country; When a country with low availability makes a request, countries with highest availability should be supplying it;
b) ICU beds: For each country a list of ‘neighbour countries’ could be drafted, where patients can be transported in case of ICU shortages.
c) Medical Staff - Establishment of a EU platform where hospitals can post vacancies. Personnel can individually access the platform and decide whether to apply for the help request, indicating their expertise, time availability, “destination” preferences and languages spoken.
Notably, all transportation costs entailed by SharEU should be covered by the EU budget and economic incentives would have to be implemented for applying staff.
The second proposal concerning health was related to coordination, as it suggested the establishment of a EU Health Coordination Committee. In fact, in light of the heterogeneity of the anti-pandemic measures taken by different Member States within the EU, the aims of the Committee would be to enhance coordination of measures taken in EU countries and provide guidelines for the implementation of common health measures. The Committee would be composed by researchers, health management specialists, and scientists representing Member States, and their suggestions should be assessed and potentially approved by the EU Council and EU Commission.
THE CHAIRS’ OPINION
Presumably, the Health & Research Roundtable presented an arduous challenge to participants, both for the technical topics and for the fact that the EU had been widely criticized for its approach to those themes. Nevertheless, participants were able to conduct a constructive dialogue through a pragmatic approach, which allowed the emergence of immediately useful policy solutions.