Europe risks missing the train of scientific progress. The EU is advancing too slowly in the sciences to narrow the gap with leaders U.S. and Japan, while China rapidly makes up for its ancestral backwardness. The targets of the failed Lisbon processhave been postponed for no less than a decade, from 2010 to 2020. Naturally, concern is growing that budget cuts will only put brakes on a research sector still heavily dependent on state investment.

This scenario was confirmed by the European Commission announcement of a ranking system for the most innovative European countries. The data reveals the inadequacy of budget outlay: although the Lisbon objective for R&D investment was 3 percent of GDP, the actual amount spent by the EU27 is only 2.01 percent.

Rectors of those European universities most involved in research have called for a boost in public investment simply to remain competitive. The 22 rectors of major universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Leuven and the University of Barcelona, are asking EU leaders to "become aware of just how much European competitiveness depends on adequate and long-term investment into basic research."

The 3 percent target to be met by the end of the first decade of this century, set at the Lisbon summit in 2000, has not been reached. Significant differences do exist between European countries, though. According to Eurostat and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Germany, France, Sweden and Denmark far exceed the European average.

Japan surpasses the entire EU

In Europe, public investment in R&D is greater than it is in other economic spheres, which explains the importance of government policies in this sector. Of all the investment in R&D in the EU, 45 percent is public money. That’s not how it is in America, where the rate is only 33 percent, or in Japan or South Korea, where the percentage of public money is under 30 percent.

European universities defend their role in research, in particular in basic research. "The world is global, and so is investment. We need to create knowledge by investing in research,” says the vice-president of research at the University of Barcelona, Jordi Alberch. "Basic research generates insight, for example, into how different materials, organisms and cells work. Such knowledge can go on to generate patents – and that’s where European universities play a significant role," Alberch sums up.

Eurostat figures show that Japan surpasses the entire EU in the number of total patents it registers in the European Patent Office per million inhabitants. Japan has 161 patents registered per million inhabitants, while the European Union has 116, though countries like Germany and Denmark are ahead of Japan. "The number of patents registered by a country is relevant, but a patent does not necessarily mean that the discovery is being exploited,” states Juan Mulet, Director General of the Foundation for Technological Innovation (Cotec), which brings together 80 Spanish technology-based companies.

Lisbon Agenda is now dead

And how does investment in research correlate with patents and economic growth? Luis Sanz, director of the Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), points out that: "In general, there is a correlation between R&D expenditure, especially the private expenditure, and patents." Patents are "a way of measuring a country's innovative potential," this expert adds.

The goal of the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation – Máire Geoghegan-Quinn – is that the three percent of GDP slated for science will be made up of one percent from public funds and two percent from private sources.

If countries in Europe with an established scientific tradition, such as the Nordic countries, Germany and the UK, are maintaining their lead, out on the international stage the United States is well ahead of the EU, while a powerful China is beginning to come up over the horizon.

The Commission maintains that effective R&D is the only way Europe can achieve growth that generates quality employment that is not subject to the ups and downs of globalisation. With the dream of the Lisbon Agenda to turn the EU into a global leader in the knowledge economy by 2010 now dead, the Commission and the EU27 have now come up with a new label: the Innovation Union, as part of a so-called Strategy 2020 geared to achieving a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The focus of this Innovation Union targets issues that, in theory, impact Europeans, such as climate change, energy efficiency and healthy living.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer