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For James Livesey, the current moment in history demands original and profound institutional innovation on the part of universities. In this article, he outlines how EUA’s Research and Innovation Agenda 2027 sets a path for a shared European research space that responds to this century’s key challenges.

Europe aspires to a just pathway across the green and digital transitions. Universities will build that road to the future through our research and innovation. The European University Association’s Research & Innovation Agenda 2027 – Seizing the moment, driving the change describes in detail how universities will sustain our specific role in research and innovation while recognising our responsibility to the entire European community.

Amplifying the societal impact of university R&I is a strategic necessity for universities as we face the complex, challenges of transition. Citizens have always been stakeholders in our universities, and now they are partners, co-creators and participants in our research. The lives of every European citizen and the fortunes of the Union as a whole will be affected by the research work done in the universities in the coming decades. EUA’s Agenda for European R&I over the next four years orientates the sector to the adaptive work that will be necessary to manage this kind of fundamental change.

Cultivating robust, diverse and collaborative R&I cultures recognises that universities are themselves being transformed. In the past, the droit de cité extended the privileges attached to urban life to a rich and deep model of democratic citizenship. Now, universities increasingly understand the droit à l’université as a feature of European citizenship, emerging from the long history of European universities as foundational national and civic institutions. We recognise the importance of access to the contested, open space we create, in which new ideas and opportunities can emerge. Indeed, this is one of the essential experiences of European life. Universities are also aware that as the outcomes of our research affect the heart of social and cultural experiences, we can only retain our social licence through transparency and partnership. The era of the university as a corps or corporation is over.

By their very nature, the climate and green transitions will put particular pressure on institutions like universities, especially research-intensive universities, because the challenges are transnational and disruptive. Universities will be agents of the transformation, not just honest brokers. Social and cultural innovation will play out within universities. This is very different from our current circumstances, where pedagogy and research have largely external impact. EUA’s agenda for university R&I recognises this change and aligns with initiatives, such as the development of the European Research Area and the work of the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA). Managed change will provide a coherent context for research careers. This agenda aspires to support our universities to attract and retain the most talented researchers to our institutions.

The social sciences and the humanities are already finding that their social licence is being contested, especially by voices elevated by new media. For example, the fundamental bases of fields such as political science and economics face being ripped apart because the models and results that they are discovering will have direct political import. This is very likely in tension with what states will find palatable, and in many cases involves developing competencies for which there are no direct state analogies. Seizing the moment and driving the change means recognising the diverse interests that are in play in this domain while articulating a clear role for rigour and excellence as guiding research values for universities.

Our goal of championing a well-designed and sustainable R&I system responds to the pressure transition puts on the role universities play within transnational networks. For some time, there has been a tension, albeit a manageable one, between this aspect of universities’ function and our national roles. US universities have had to walk a line where they have been highly integrated into the national security apparatus while remaining pillars of the international university network. The further development of security and geopolitical assertion by the EU will no doubt intensify this tension in Europe as well.

One of the key challenges for innovation is to develop platforms that establish how species-affecting technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9 and AI, are developed and deployed. This goes far beyond impact, since such technologies potentially represent the ability to alter the fundamentals of biological and cultural life. This challenge is posed for Europe in particular, since the EU is the regulatory superpower and the only bloc that has any chance of aligning the two other big systems (US and China). This work will extend far beyond the universities, but the role we can play is well articulated in EUA’s R&I Agenda.

For the current moment, the most relevant historical analogy is with the middle of the nineteenth century. From the mid-eighteenth century, new forms of knowledge, in medicine, the social sciences, physics, and engineering, had been fostered by new institutions, such as scientific associations. Therefore, during this period, European universities, led by the German universities, reorganised themselves to manage the world of knowledge for globalising and industrialising societies. They did so by establishing the research seminar and the laboratory as new sites within universities, through which they aligned with those new forces in science. It was not obvious that universities would rise to this challenge, but they did it.

The research university - as we have inherited it - was an incredibly successful response to the challenges of the nineteenth century. The current moment will demand similarly original and profound institutional innovation. EUA’s Agenda for seizing the moment, driving the change is only one contribution to the construction of a shared European research space, but it shows that universities recognise the issues at play and are ready to respond to them.


James Livesey
University of Galway

James Livesey is Vice-President for Research and Innovation at the University of Galway, Ireland, and a member of EUA’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group.

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