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Document 52009AE0040

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Council Regulation on the Community legal framework for a European Research Infrastructure (ERI)

OJ C 182, 4.8.2009, p. 40–43 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

4.8.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 182/40


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Council Regulation on the Community legal framework for a European Research Infrastructure (ERI)’

COM(2008) 467 final — 2008/0148 (CNS)

(2009/C 182/08)

Rapporteur: Mr STANTIČ

On 5 September 2008 the Council of the European Union decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 172 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Proposal for a Council Regulation on the Community legal framework for a European Research Infrastructure (ERI)

COM(2008) 467 final — 2008/0148 (CNS).

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 6 January 2009. The rapporteur was Mr STANTIČ.

At its 450th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 January 2009 (meeting of 15 January 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 149 votes to 1 with 5 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1   Top-class research infrastructure is one of they key pillars for the further development of the European Research Area.

1.2   Setting-up and running a competitive world-class European research infrastructure generally exceeds the capabilities and the potential capacity demand of individual Member States. For this reason, joint action in this area has an especially high level of European added value. The attractiveness of such infrastructures leads to greater networking and cooperation within the European Research Area and helps to reduce the fragmentation that remains.

1.3   The EESC therefore supports the roadmap put forward by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) for the development of 44 new, large-scale research infrastructures of pan-European interest in the coming 10 to 20 years.

1.4   Individual, national legal frameworks are unlikely to provide an adequate legal basis for the development of world-class research infrastructure of pan-European interest. The EESC therefore supports the proposed regulation for a single Community framework for ERI, which can facilitate and speed up the implementation of the projects proposed by the ESFRI.

1.5   New, world-class research infrastructures can significantly boost the attractiveness of the European Research Area (ERA) and prevent the brain drain out of Europe. However, concentrating large-scale infrastructure exclusively in developed countries will, at least in the short run, attract researchers from across Europe. This potentially negative effect for some countries can be compensated in the longer run by ensuring ERI are well distributed geographically and access to ERI is as open as possible.

1.6   The EESC calls on the Member State to follow up on the ESFRI and Commission's initiative, and to draw up their national roadmaps for the development and modernisation of research infrastructure as soon as possible.

1.7   The Committee supports the proposed exemption from value added tax and excise duty for ERI, since this boosts their attractiveness and provides them with a competitive advantage over similar projects elsewhere in the world.

1.8   The EESC recommends that the Community contribute more actively to the co-financing of ERI by increasing funds in the 8th Framework Programme for research and development. By gaining leverage through partial ownership, the Community will be in a better position to guarantee a wider geographical distribution of ERI and provide open access for as wide a circle of European researchers as possible.

1.9   The Committee recommends giving greater priority in European cohesion policy and its financial instruments, the structural funds, to the development of new research and innovative capacities. It also calls on the Commission and Member States to develop additional policy instruments to stimulate further investment in research infrastructure by the private sector.

1.10   The EESC would like to draw attention to the costs of running and maintaining ERI once initial investment has been completed. These costs, which can reach levels of up to 20 % of the investment value annually, are a potential threat to the notion of open access for researchers from countries that are not members of an ERI. It would therefore be worthwhile including co-financing for ongoing operations from European funds within the context of the Eighth Framework Programme for R & D.

2.   Introduction

2.1   The establishment of a European Research Area (ERA) has been the principal aim of all Community measures on research and development since 2000 (1). In the period that followed, the Member States have launched numerous initiatives in this area. However, a range of national and institutional barriers still stand in the way of the final aim, which is the introduction of the ‘fifth freedom’ in Europe, the free movement of knowledge. One of they central problems for Europe in the area of science and research is its fragmentation, which prevents Europe from fully exploiting its research potential.

2.2   There is no doubt that top-class research infrastructure represents one of they key pillars in the further development of the ERA (2) since it:

fosters excellence in science,

makes it possible to carry out globally competitive basic and applied research,

attracts the best researchers,

stimulates innovation in industry and promotes the transfer of knowledge,

contributes to European integration,

generates higher European added value.

2.3   One of the characteristics of large-scale European research infrastructure is that the high investment and running costs which they involve, as well as the ability to fully exploit capacities, are often beyond the reach of individual Member States. This means that, quite often, European centres of excellence are unable to achieve critical mass. Some also suffer from inadequate networking and cooperation. In spite of these shortcomings, Europe has in the past succeeded in setting up a number of important, pan-European projects of a world class standard, such as CERN, ITER, EMBO, ESA, ESRF (3) and others.

2.4   The Proposal for a Regulation COM(2008) 467 final, which is the subject of this opinion, is one of five Commission initiatives that have been planned for 2008 and are aimed at significantly speeding up the creation of a European research area (ERA) (4).

2.5   The proposal would contribute to the goals of the Lisbon Agenda since it would speed up public and private investment in research, which still lies well below the target of 3 % of GDP by 2010 (currently at 1,7-1,8 % of GDP on average). The proposal would provide a basis for the much-needed consolidation of European research infrastructures. These will enhance the ERA and boost the competitiveness of European enterprises.

3.   Background

3.1   Already in 2002, the European Council, which was seeking to tackle the numerous challenges being faced in the area of research infrastructure more successfully, established the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) (5), giving it a mandate to draw up a roadmap for the development and construction of the next generation of large-scale infrastructure of pan-European interest.

3.2   The ESFRI, in cooperation with the Commission, and following extensive consultations (with 1 000 high-level experts), identified 35 pan-European projects (6) which would meet the need for large-scale European research infrastructures in the coming 10 to 20 years (7).

3.3   The roadmap foresees new, vital research infrastructures of various sizes and value, which will cover a wide variety of research areas, ranging from social and natural sciences, to electronic systems for archiving scientific publications and data bases (8). The estimated value of all projects is more than EUR 20 billion.

3.4   In identifying the factors that might obstruct the setting-up of world class pan-European research infrastructures, the ESFRI also highlighted, besides financial and organisational restrictions, the lack of a legal framework or structures at European level that would make it possible to set up international partnerships in a straightforward and effective manner. Currently, partners wishing to cooperate on the development of shared research infrastructure must first agree on the national legal basis (9) they intend to use (or must resort to an international agreement), which causes additional administrative problems.

3.5   The ESFRI has therefore singled out the need to develop a specific Community legal framework for establishing European research infrastructure (henceforth ERI) involving several Member States.

3.6   Definition of the term ERI: the term is applied to objects, installations, sources and services which the scientific community uses to carry out top-class research. This includes scientific equipment, knowledge based sources (scientific collections, archives, structured scientific data), infrastructure based on information and communication technology, as well as any other unique resources that are essential to excellence in research. Such research infrastructure can either be located ‘in one place’ or be ‘dispersed’ (organised network of sources).

4.   Commission proposal

4.1   Having reached the conclusion that current legal tools which are based on different national legislation cannot meet the needs of new pan-European infrastructure, and on the initiative of the Member States, the Commission drew up a proposal for a Council Regulation on a Community legal framework for ERI based on Article 171 of the EC Treaty.

4.2   The main purpose of the proposed legislation is to enable Member States and third countries involved in the Community's Framework Programme for research and development to jointly set-up and operate research facilities of pan-European interest.

4.3   ERI has legal personality which is based on its membership (at least three Member States are required; third countries and intergovernmental organisations can join), and enjoys full legal capacity in all Member States. The regulation establishes the legal framework of requirements and processes needed to set up an ERI.

4.4   The ERI has the status of an international organisation in respect of the directives on value added tax, excise duty and public procurement. It is thus exempt from VAT and excise duty, and its public procurement is not covered by the provisions of the directive on public procurement (10).

4.5   The ERI can be co-financed from the financial instruments of cohesion policy in accordance with the Council Regulation (11) laying down general provisions on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the Cohesion Fund.

5.   General comments

5.1   The EESC believes that the proposed, new legal instrument, which would complement existing legal tools, will facilitate and promote the decision making process on new infrastructures of pan-European interest, and thus help to speed up the creation of the ERA and the achievement of the Lisbon Strategy goals.

5.2   The EESC welcomes the clear and determined commitment of the Commission and the Member States to harmonise the ongoing development of European research infrastructure. Only in this way will it be possible to implement the roadmap as proposed by the ESFRI.

5.3   Developing new, research infrastructure of the highest worldwide standard can contribute significantly to the overall attractiveness of the European Research Area. It plays a vital role in efforts to hold on to and further motivate the 400 000 highly talented young researchers which Europe needs to achieve the three percent target on investment in science and development. In addition, top class research infrastructure can attract gifted and highly qualified researchers from around the world.

5.4   Due to the extremely demanding nature of the proposed research infrastructure projects (12), the possibilities for smaller or less developed countries to host major research infrastructures, or participate in them, are, realistically speaking, quite limited. Future, large-scale infrastructure is likely to be mainly located in the most developed countries, which in the short run could exacerbate the brain drain within the EU. In the longer run, the risk of this occurring should diminish, since 28 of the 44 projects on the ESFRI's list are classified as ‘distributed infrastructures’, in other words, infrastructure involving a network across Europe of one form or another. This also makes it more likely that smaller and less developed countries will be able to participate. To ensure such participation materialises, the EESC calls for researchers to be granted broad access to such infrastructure. It is also important to link up scientific, technical and administrative staff as much as possible across such widely dispersed structures.

5.5   Around 15 % of researchers in European research institutions cooperate with industry in their use of research infrastructure. The development of new research infrastructure can therefore generate new demand, numerous ‘spin-off’ effects and provide additional stimulus for the transfer of knowledge and technology into industry. It can also contribute to the achievement of the Barcelona target, which is to increase private investment in R&D to 2 % of GDP.

5.6   The European Economic Recovery Plan launched by the Commission on 26 November 2008 to dampen the economic impact of the financial crisis specifically mentions R&D. The list of long-term measures set out in the plan includes so-called ‘smart investments’. The Commission places particular emphasis on this and calls on Member States and the private sector to invest more in R&D, innovation, and education. The EESC underlines the positive effects of investments in research infrastructure. The potential trade value of investments is over EUR 10 billion, which can help preserve a large number of jobs in businesses that would be responsible for carrying out the infrastructure projects. It would also act as a positive stimulus for a faster transition to the knowledge society.

5.7   The European Roadmap on Research Infrastructures serves as an excellent basis for national roadmaps. The Committee notes that some Member States have not taken these initiatives seriously enough. It therefore calls on them to make up for lost opportunities as quickly as possible, and to follow-up on the ESFRI's and the Commission's initiatives.

5.8   The emphasis in the future financing of research infrastructure will remain on funding from the Member States. That is why it is important to coordinate such funding. Only in this way will it be possible to achieve critical mass, ensure investments are effective, and guarantee adequate specialisation and scientific excellence within infrastructures.

5.9   In spite of the increases in funding for research infrastructure in the 7th FP and the options available under cohesion policy, the EU budget still falls well short of what is needed to implement the ambitious plans. The EESC draws attention to the need for greater synergy between the 7th Framework Programme and the structural funds as regards the funding of research infrastructure. It also calls on the Commission and Member States to develop further policy instruments to stimulate greater investment in research infrastructure by the private sector. Greater commitment by the EIB (for instance, in the form of support from the 'Risk Sharing Finance Facility') and other financial institutions would also be welcome.

5.10   The Committee recommends that greater priority be given in European cohesion policy and its financial instruments, the structural funds, to the development of new research and innovative capacities. It calls on Member State governments to start making greater use of structural funds to modernise and expand their research capacities. In the new Member States in particular, European funds often remain unused because governments do not provide adequate financial participation, or do not give enough priority to improvements in research capacities. As a consequence, many researchers are leaving their home countries looking for research opportunities. Progress in this area is therefore crucial if we are to successfully tackle the problem of the brain drain within Europe.

6.   Specific comments

6.1   The Committee supports the proposed exemption from value added tax since this can significantly boost the attractiveness of ERI. It can also provide them with a competitive advantage over similar projects elsewhere in the world. We therefore support the idea of guaranteeing ERI as much tax relief as possible (within the rules on state aid). Many existing research infrastructures which meet the criteria of an ‘international organisation’ under the relevant directives are already benefiting from exemptions on VAT and excise duty. However, the current procedure involves drawn-out and complicated negotiations, and causes delays in the setting up of infrastructure, as well as considerable legal and financial uncertainty. An automatic exemption for ERI, as foreseen in the Regulation, would remove major barriers to the development and running of research infrastructures in Europe.

6.2   The EESC recommends giving serious consideration to the possibility of the Community participating more actively in the financing of the ERI. By gaining leverage through targeted grants, the Community can guarantee a more balanced geographical distribution of the ERI, as well as better access for those countries that are not direct members. However, to implement such a policy additional designated funding needs to be secured in the 8th Framework programme for research and development.

The Committee believes that there is no reason why the EU should not adopt the same approach to research infrastructures as it does to co-financing for other European infrastructure networks (for example, roads, railways, power lines, gas pipelines, etc.).

The Committee wishes to draws attention to the problem of running and maintenance costs once initial investment has been completed. According to some estimates these can reach levels of up to 20 % of the investment value annually. These costs are often neglected in investment studies and can significantly hamper the smooth, long-term operation of research infrastructures. The Committee therefore recommends including the possibility of co-financing the ongoing operation of research infrastructures from European funds under the Eighth Framework Programme for R & D.

6.3.1   On the subject of running costs, the EESC recommends that the charging of reasonably priced user fees for the joint use of infrastructure should be considered a ‘limited economic activity’ (Art. 2).

6.4   The Committee emphasises the importance of open access to all ERI for as wide a circle of European researchers and scientists as possible. It would not be right if, in practice, access were restricted to the countries that are members of an ERI, or was based exclusively on the ability to pay. The proposal for shared ownership by the Community, as put forward under point 6.2, would also facilitate open access and thus contribute to better integration into the European research area.

6.5   In developing and using top-class infrastructure it is also important to take into account the protection of intellectual property. Potential problems should be solved responsibly and in good time.

Brussels, 15 January 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  In 2000 the Commission published its first Communication in this area, ‘Towards a European Research Area’.

(2)  Competitiveness Council (Internal Market, Industry and Research), 29-30 May 2008.

(3)  CERN — The European organisation for Nuclear Research, ITER — International Fusion Energy Organisation, EMBO — European Molecular Biology Organisation, ESA — European Space Agency, ESRF — European Synchotron Radiation Facility.

(4)  The other initiatives/policies are: Joint programming in research, European partnership for researchers, Intellectual property management and Wide opening of the ERA to the World.

(5)  ESFRI — European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, http://cordis.europa.eu/esfri/home.html.

(6)  European Roadmap for Research Infrastructures, Report 2006, http://cordis.europa.eu/esfri/roadmap.htm. The roadmap was completed in 2008 (projects in the fields of environmental, biological and medical sciences in particular were added) and now includes altogether 44 projects.

(7)  European Roadmap for Research Infrastructures, Report 2006, http://cordis.europa.eu/esfri/roadmap.html.

(8)  The infrastructural projects cover 7 different scientific areas: Social Sciences and Humanities, Environmental Sciences, Energy, Biomedical and Life Sciences, Material Sciences, Astronomy — Astrophysics — Nuclear and Particle Physics, Computation and Data Treatment.

(9)  For example: the French ‘societé civile’, the German ‘GmbH’, the British ‘limited liability company (Ltd)’, or the Dutch ‘stichting’ (‘fondation’).

(10)  Council Directive 2006/112/ES of 28.11.2006, Art. 151(1)(b), Council Directive 92/12/EEC of 25.2.1992, Art. 23(1), and Directive of the EP and the Council 2004/18/EC of 31.3.2004, Art. 15(c).

(11)  Council Regulation 1083/2006 of 11.7.2006.

(12)  The estimated, average value of individual ERI is between EUR 500 million and EUR 1 billion.


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