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Reacting to EUA’s Research and Innovation Agenda 2027, Sebastian Wörwag describes how universities are the engines that will transform our societies through transnational and transdisciplinary exchanges of knowledge, people and ideas.

Throughout history, universities have played a key role in addressing major crises. They have done so by making important contributions to cross-cultural understanding, social transformation, evidence-based policy making and informed debates. European universities’ responsibility to fulfil this role is now greater than ever as our world faces a series of multifaceted crises and challenges, which are becoming increasingly complex due to their global scale and the complex interdependencies between social, environmental, economic, cultural and political dimensions.

In my view, open and inclusive R&I cultures and sustainable R&I systems must be seen as prerequisites for contributing to strong societal impacts for future societies. This is a key element of the European University Association’s recently published Research & Innovation Agenda 2027, the overarching goal of which is to proactively contribute to a sustainable, resilient and innovative Europe. Convinced of the importance of research and innovation across borders, cultures and disciplines, the Agenda identifies three main priorities: a) amplifying the societal impact of university R&I, b) cultivating robust, diverse and collaborative R&I culture(s), and c) championing a well-designed and sustainable R&I system.

Responsible and transformative Research and Innovation

Europe's universities not only contribute to impact within the scientific community, but also position themselves at the heart of current societal debates and deliberations. As universities, we need to understand that building trust and engagement in science and innovation requires more than good science communication, but also the active involvement of stakeholders, local communities and citizens in the design and implementation of research and innovation policies and projects.

Societal impact is not just an outcome of R&I, but an underlying principle and prerequisite for responsible and transformative research. Research evaluation will need to change its metrics to reflect these principles. With this understanding, Europe's universities take on a responsible role as drivers of societal change. They are change agents for better social conditions and for a greener and digitally responsible Europe.

Research and Innovation as a continuum

Overcoming the somewhat outdated distinction between basic and applied research, EUA’s R&I Agenda 2027 understands research and innovation as a continuum from cutting-edge new insights to applicable, responsible and use-oriented innovation – all committed to the highest standards of excellence. Even curiosity-driven and mission-driven research are no longer seen as separate missions of universities, but as twins and areas of collaboration between different university profiles. Therefore, alliances of different university profiles in all European regions, linking scientific systems with regional ecosystems, may become the new normal.

Universities as catalysts

To address the diverse and sometimes conflicting interests of future societies, Europe's universities have an important role to play in building bridges between different stakeholders, sectors and countries through transnational and transdisciplinary exchanges of knowledge, people and ideas. By being open and responsive to the needs of society, our universities can enable the participation and networking of all actors in multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral cooperation. This implies robust interaction with stakeholders, industry, local communities and citizens in the design and implementation of R&I. Incorporating the views and input of citizens will increase understanding and awareness of the impact of R&I on people's daily lives.

Towards long-term transformation

Universities benefit from a broad diversity of perspectives and approaches for designing and implementing R&I. Equally, research results need to be introduced in the diversity of public dialogues and political discussions. Given the long processes of scientific knowledge production and public debates, political and societal expectations regarding Research and Innovation need to shift from short-term utility thinking to a long-term transformation perspective. I am convinced that only by appreciating university autonomy and long-term knowledge and capacity building can public and political expectations on sustainable impact of R&I be met. Therefore R&I requires long-term funding at EU, national and regional level – both for bottom-up fundamental research and for applied research.

R&I is always an investment in the next generation. This investment will help Europe and its countries to achieve a leading position as a knowledge society and a global scientific powerhouse. Synergies between the European Research Area and the European Higher Education Area will become even more important in the future to create and disseminate future skills and key values, mutually reinforcing open science and open education policies. This will make European universities a catalyst for a modern, sustainable, inclusive and forward-looking Europe.


Sebastian Wörwag
Bern University of Applied Sciences

Sebastian Wörwag is President of Bern University of Applied Sciences. Since 2022, he has represented Switzerland in the EUA Research and Innovation Strategy Group.

Photo: Copyright PHTG

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