NoEs call for additional EU support to guarantee permanence

A group of 56 EU-funded Networks of Excellence (NoEs), representing more than 13,000 researchers, has drafted an opinion paper calling for action from the European Commission to secure the
long-term future of the most successful integrated networks.

The signatories believe that NoEs face an uncertain future, and urge the Commission to take four actions to ensure their long-term sustainability. The proposed actions address the Commission’s
commitment to NoEs, funding, a review of NoEs and further exploitation of the networks.

NoEs were created for the first time under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). They were designed to strengthen scientific and technological excellence in specific research topics through
the durable integration of research capacities. Their aim was to overcome the fragmentation of European research by gathering a critical mass of resources, as well as the expertise needed to
provide European leadership. Over 170 NoEs have been created.

The main causes for concern relate to a reduction of funding for NoEs and difficulties in setting up a permanent legal structure.

‘We do not believe that Europe can afford to allow the achievements of this important instrument to be compromised and consequently to lose the major financial, human, intellectual, structural
and conceptual investments already made in research potential,’ states the opinion paper.

The Commission has responded by saying that it is looking to re-examine how NoEs can be used ‘as an instrument to take a real step forward in the European Research Area’.

‘That’s why we will be launching an evaluation of current NoEs by independent experts, to see what can be done to make the best possible use of this instrument,’ said the spokesperson of EU
Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.

The opinion paper makes the case for the continued existence of NoEs by highlighting the importance of critical mass for competitiveness. ‘It is increasingly difficult for a single research
organisation to master all the methods required in its field of research, or have the capacity to produce breakthrough results to their full potential for the benefit of society. Neither is it
always efficient from an economical point of view, to invest in small research groups, especially if this leads to duplication of facilities or effort or lack of critical mass,’ reads the
paper.

Indeed, the recent Green Paper ‘The European Research Area: New Perspectives’ sets out a vision for European research that NoEs have already been pursuing, the signatories believe. These
include the coordination of national and regional research activities, researcher mobility, world-class infrastructures, public-private cooperation, and attracting human and financial
resources.

But the Green Paper has not reassured NoEs. ‘Many scientists are currently feeling concerned about the long-term future and sustainability of NoEs and for good reasons. In FP7, the number of
NoEs has been substantially cut back in the first calls, with only 17 Networks being funded, as compared to 101 in FP6. In addition, no support for existing NoEs has been announced,’ states the
opinion paper.

The signatories would also like to see longer funding periods for NoEs. The Provisions for Implementing NoEs state that a Network should be funded long enough for its integration to take on a
lasting nature. In most cases, NoEs have received EU funding for four or five years. ‘The general view and experience of most Networks is that this period is simply too short either to find
suitable alternative sources of funding or to create a sustainable base through developing spin-offs or commercially viable products or services. Neither do we feel that it is an acceptable
alternative to seek EU funding for different parts of a Network’s activities such as collaborative research or exchanges,’ the paper reads.

The barriers to more durable integration are further-reaching than finances. NoEs have encountered institutional obstacles as well as more fundamental legal constraints. ‘The conversion of
Networks into permanent legal structures, which is hoped will help guarantee their survival after the Commission funding period has finished, has also been difficult to achieve. […] These
issues could have been more effectively managed if a more thorough impact assessment of the instrument had taken place,’ states the paper. An independent review of the NoEs is due to take place
soon.

The opinion paper asks the European Commission to consider four actions in order to offer more security to NoEs:
– Reconfirm its commitment to the Network of Excellence as one of the main mechanisms to strengthen and structure the European Research Area and to combat fragmentation;
– Provide, via a competitive process, the possibility for existing NoEs to access additional funding to reach sustainable and durable integration. The target should be those Networks that can
show real achievements in integration and have a convincing case that funding for a transition period could make the difference in reaching the highest level of integration and
sustainability;
– Carry out a more comprehensive review of the NoEs and their impact on European society, including teaching, research and dissemination, and analysing long-term sustainability and integration
issues. This could lead to best practice guidelines;
– Further exploit the unique European infrastructure formed by the NoEs to develop a ‘network of networks’ that would open up new interdisciplinary areas of research. These networks would
enable the scientific community to build upon and take further the original vision of the Commission and ignite interest in new areas of science.

‘We do not believe that Europe can afford to let this instrument disappear and consequently to lose the achievements that have been made to date. It may take years to recreate something
similar, by which time the momentum will have been lost, along with the considerable investment that has been made,’ write the NoE coordinators.

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