Our society is currently undergoing several big changes that pose challenges and opportunities for the future. The increasing digitalization and automation, the growing globalization, and improved financial durability offer many excellent opportunities for development. There is more research funding in the system than ever before. On the other hand, our society is vulnerable; we have challenges in relation to inequality, an environment put under severe stress, and more hostile tendencies than we have seen in a long time, despite the good times and economic growth. In our work at the European Commission Independent High Level Group on Maximizing the Impact of EU Research & Innovation Programmes,4 we try to understand and elaborate on these challenges to be able to propose a suitable strategy for future research funding from the European Commission.
I foresee a time when learning is a lifelong commitment, with people spending 10%–20% of their work time continuing their education in order to learn new skills and make oneself relevant as the future unfolds.
With an area of 10 million square kilometers and a population of 740 million, Europe is a substantial region of prosperity and development. Many EU countries lead in rankings of prosperity, education, digitalization, equality, and low corruption.
Investment in research and innovation has been substantial and recognized as important for the development of the society, for ensuring a high level of skills, and for contributing to the creation of jobs and growth, albeit not to the extent demonstrated by North America or South East Asia. With just 7% of the world’s population and 24% of global GDP, the EU produces approximately 30% of the world’s scientific publications.4 Several European countries are leading the research investment competition as a share of the country’s GDP—after the three top countries Israel, Korea, and Japan—with Europe at 2.03% and Sweden leading in Europe with investments of 3.26% of the GDP.a In the Lamy report,4 we argued for a European target of 3%.
However, the business economy in high-tech sectors and PCT patent applications per-million population both show a lower growth rate in Europe than in U.S. Hence, Europe must focus on innovation and investigate the mechanisms within its society that prevent development on a scale the same as the U.S.
Figure. Comparative and growth rates of scientific publications, highly cited scientific publications, researchers, patent applications and valued-added of high-tech sectors in the EU compared to the U.S.
The EU funding program Horizon 2020 that focuses on scientific impact was prioritized particularly through the ERC program for funding excellent basic research. This turned Europe into an attractive arena to develop research careers and thus strengthening European research quality and performance.
Trends and Needs for Future European Research
Some of the most prevalent trends and needs that may influence future research and innovation throughout Europe include the following:
- Societal challenges of importance and acuteness. The EC has conducted activities to foster mission-driven science and innovation based on the activities by Mazzucato5 to target the overall goals of research to address the forefront of development. Horizon 2020 aims for challenges, while Horizon Europe seems to focus more toward missions. A possible mission agreed by many is to join forces to achieve the Sustainability Development Goals.9
- Increasingly complex research problems. The challenges on today’s research agenda are becoming bigger and more complex, requiring large multidisciplinary collaboration teams. While traditional research strives to limit and focus research questions to problems that could derive scientific conclusions beyond any doubt, today’s problems are becoming increasingly more “wicked,”7 without the opportunity to isolate particular phenomena for empirical testing. To research such problems requires methodologies and processes to develop knowledge under these conditions, ensuring scientific rigor, quality, and ethical standards being met.
- Multidisciplinarity opportunities and challenges. Today’s complex problems require a more genuine and open collaboration across a wide range of different disciplines. It requires each individual builds a broad understanding of the context of research far beyond the disciplinary research agenda in addition to the depth required within their own field.1 It requires true trans-disciplinary work, including social science and humanities (SSH) from the outset, to be able to tackle complex problems in technical and medical research and innovation in a meaningful way.
- Unprecedented technological development. The last decades of development has seen the birth and growth of many groundbreaking innovations that changed our everyday lives. Advancements have had an impact not only on the technology itself, but also on disciplines such as medicine, SSH, economy, and basic science. There is no reason to think development will slow down, rather we must embrace and support the development and maintain high ethical standards in the development.
- Innovation. One of the major political arguments for investing in research is that it will eventually lead to the development of new products, services, or knowledge with the potential to create new companies, employment opportunities, and eventually contribute to the economic growth of the society. The mechanisms for supporting more disruptive innovation is essential.10
- End-user involvement and citizen science. An essential characterizing aspect of future research and innovation is the need to incorporate and involve the general public to a much larger extent and engage in so-called citizen science.2 People may become involved as participants, for example, in more action-oriented research projects sharing their personal data.3 To be able to address our future challenges, they will become reflective practitioners8 in the analysis and reconstruction of the society.
- Connection to education. Digitalization means changing the ways we educate by providing opportunities to offer education to everybody. I foresee a time when learning is a lifelong commitment, with people spending 10%–20% of their work time continuing their education in order to learn new skills and make oneself relevant as the future unfolds. These needs must be addressed when building the research community, as there is a tight and important connection between research and education.
- Research leadership. There is a need for leadership that understands trans-disciplinary research and knows how best to engage participants. Trustworthy and engaging leaders can guide teams through complex, wicked problem solving.
A value-driven research process, recognizing the European values of participation, gender equality, and low corruption has been powerful throughout Europe. The key factors in reducing inequality include a strong focus on education, health, social protection, progressive taxation, higher wages for the general workforce, stronger labor rights, especially for women.6 These values makes Europe a unique place to develop research that features strong human and humanistic values, a strong commitment to the U.N. sustainability goals, and recognizing the opportunity for overall participation on equal terms beyond hierarchies, knowledge levels, education, or assets.