Research infrastructures (RI) refer to facilities, resources (including human) and related services needed by the research community to conduct research in any scientific or technological field. Due to the large number of research communities and complex research needs, there are very different types of research infrastructures with specific characteristics. Four types of RI are commonly distinguished: 1) single-site facilities; 2) distributed facilities; 3) mobile facilities; and 4) virtual facilities.
While RIs are designed for research needs, the impacts of these facilities reach beyond fuelling scientific excellence. The advanced technical opportunities, and the concentration of skilled human capital and know-how can foster innovation, create new or expand the existing markets, attract inward investment, increase economic activity and potentially have an impact on the social and cultural life in a particular region. In this regard RIs can be viewed as focal points for continuous interaction between scientific, technological and socio-economic development (Rizzuto, 2012).
RIs have a prominent place in the advancement of the European Research Area and aim to make a significant contribution towards boosting European research and innovation potential. The development of pan-European RI and their regional partner facilities is considered an important driver for knowledge-based growth in Europe (Quintana, 2013). RIs are also directly related to European technological competitiveness since construction, upgrades, maintenance of infrastructures and instrumentation require involvement and boost of the most advanced industries that can become niche market leaders at global level (ESFRI Roadmap, 2016).
ESFRI, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, was initiated in 2002 to support a coherent and strategy-led approach to policy-making on RI in Europe, and to facilitate better use and development of RI, at EU and international level. Under the ESFRI initiative EU Member States have been urged to develop national RI roadmaps as vital blueprints which allow countries to set national priorities and to earmark funds for their development and participation in pan-European RI activities.
Due to their impact on the economy, the Commission expects significant investment in RI from the funds of the new Structural Funds programming period (Quintana, 2013). National and regional authorities across Europe are required to draw up their RIS3 and include the ESFRI related RI and/or other facilities with a regional or national relevance, so that the EU’s Structural Funds can be used more efficiently. The risk of duplication of R&D efforts is very costly within a context where resources to invest in highly innovative technologies are limited.
In order to include RIs in RIS3, the prerequisite is to envision a clear logic in how supported RIs will stimulate research and innovation as key instrument for regional development. Business involvement in the use of RI hence becomes a more prominent issue. It is expected that this approach of using synergies of ESIF and other funding sources “will reinforce the capacity of less favoured regions to host and participate in RI of pan-European and international interest” (Righi-Steele, 2013).
Countries that have applied RI mapping in RIS3 development include Austria and Hungary. Austria launched a RI inventory survey to support its prioritisation and policy mix design phase. Hungary has implemented a comprehensive National Research Infrastructure Survey and Roadmap project already in 2011 independently from the smart specialisation process. This work resulted in a database that identifies the infrastructures of high importance for Hungary in each scientific discipline. Using this background work a designated RI Working Group compiled a shorter RI priority list that was used as input material to RIS3. Data have been requested from the domestic stakeholders also regarding respective foreign research infrastructures seen as strategic for RIS3 design.
In order to include specific research infrastructures as part of RIS3, the businesses, researchers and policy makers have to identify the need for such RI in the region and consider the expected impact of RI on the regional economy. Issues such as links with local industries, potential for generating spin-offs and the capacity to form clusters around RIs should be explored and analysed in detail. It is also vital to identify whether similar research facilities already exist elsewhere and if so, if they are accessible and affordable for regional researchers and businesses. This aspect is of particular importance given the aim of avoiding duplication and redundancies in the use of EU Structural Funds.
A comprehensive and up-to-date mapping of the existing and planned research infrastructures across the EU regions will provide basic background information for regional policy makers in their RIS3 process. Since there is a large variety of instrumentation, the database should include only those RI that are of pan-European and pan-regional significance, meaning that they are selected as strategic in terms of size and uniqueness, and provide open access services to users from other regions/countries.
Taking into account the fact that setting-up or upgrading RI usually requires a considerable level of financial investment and a long-term operation strategy, it is equally important to provide policy makers access to information about European research facilities that are in construction/development or investment planning phase. Data on international H2020 and FP7 projects that have addressed/are addressing RI development should be well accessible and provide information about the available facilities and their location and transnational access opportunities.
During RIS3 contextual analysis policy makers can use this mapping information to determine how the current research facilities available in the region benchmark against those of neighbouring regions and how unique the regional RI equipment is on the European scale. This information can feed into the analysis of the existing research potential. Further mapping information can be exploited at priority setting and policy mix design stage assessing the need and feasibility for new RI investment, as well as calculating opportunity cost in the case of non-investment.
The use of research infrastructure mapping would lead to a better use of the existing and more considerate development of future research infrastructures helping to avoid duplications and redundancies. A comprehensive information base about the European RI landscape would enhance and optimise RIs and their access by scientists and innovation developers, which is a key ingredient for competitiveness as well as a necessary basis for tackling grand societal challenges. Integration of this information in the design of regional smart specialisation process would help making strategic choices and support a coherent and strategy-led approach to RDI competence development in European Research Area.
Data requirements for including RI mapping approach in RIS3 process include:
- Inventory of existing RIs in all European countries categorised by:
- Type of RI
- Scientific domain
- Societal challenge addressed
Each enlisted facility should include information on:
- Hosting organisation and RI location
- Short description of the facility and the available equipment
- Open access status
- List of provided services and pricing, where available
- Average number of users per year (national, European, international) and average rate of usage, where available
- Keywords for identifying the facility in general search option.
- A database of supported RI projects under H2020 and FP7
- Overview of prioritised ESFRI level RI categorised by scientific domain and societal challenge addressed
- Data on planned ESIF investments in RI development
- ESF MERIL database (Mapping of the European RI landscape): http://www.esfri.eu/maps-ris
The MERIL portal provides access to an inventory of openly accessible research infrastructures (RIs) of more-than-national relevance in Europe across all scientific domains. RIs included in the database have been evaluated through a national or European process on the basis of commonly agreed criteria and recognised as being of the highest standards and relevance to research in Europe. Inclusion in the database is thus a label of quality. One of the main goals of MERIL is to allow policy-makers to assess the state of RIs throughout Europe to pinpoint gaps or duplications and make decisions about where best to direct funding, therefore it can be considered a policy-making tool.
- RIs Observatory: http://observatory.rich2020.eu/rich/
The Observatory is a single access point to all information on H2020 and FP7 projects related to RI development. The National Contact Points for H2020-RI programme gather, organise and provide access to information on RI projects, their transnational access opportunities, policy issues, stakeholders, national and regional initiatives on RIs, etc. The information covers all countries and all thematic fields.
- The European eInfrastructures observatory: http://www.enventory.eu/
Enventory is an on-line platform, offering several interactive and user-driven visualisation tools and an extensive set of benchmarking indicators to facilitate multidimensional and polymorphic monitoring/analysis, support fact-based policy/learning and disseminate achievements of electronic and digital infrastructures in Europe.
- ESFRI Roadmap 2016: http://www.esfri.eu/roadmap-2016
The updated roadmap includes six new pan-European RIs in addition to the 15 ongoing RI projects identified in earlier years. The online document provides information on all 21 ESFRI projects, comprising both distributed and single-sited facilities across all domains of science. ESFRI documents also include separate in-depth publications on networks of RI in Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Materials and Analytical Facilities, Physics and Astronomy, Social Sciences and Humanities, Energy and Engineering.
In order to create an online service for mapping of RI as part of RIS3 process it would be necessary to:
- Explore all technical details of the current RI inventories that exist at the European level and determine how comprehensive and granular is the information gathered under these initiatives
- Develop concise online guidance material that explains how best to exploit RI mapping for RIS3 development
- Explore whether there is a need for any data linking and extra visualisation options or links to the existing databases can simply be embedded as part of the developed guidance material.
- ESFRI (2016) ESFRI Roadmap 2016, available at: http://www.esfri.eu/roadmap-2016.
- Reppel, K. (2013) Structural funds in support of Research Infrastructures, presentation at the Workshop about Research Infrastructures and Structural Funds, Brussels, 15 May 2015.
- Righi-Steele, E. (2013) The role of ESFRI and the perspective for the next Roadmap update, presentation at the Workshop about Research Infrastructures and Structural Funds, Brussels, 15 May 2015.
- Rizzuto, C. (2012) Benefits of Research Infrastructures beyond Science, presentation at ERF Workshop.
- Quintana, O. (2013) The Development of Research Infrastructures within the European Research Area and Expected Synergies with Cohesion Policy, presentation at the Workshop about Research Infrastructures and Structural Funds, Brussels, 15 May 2015.