Challenges for Europe: 5 questions on European research on Europe

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The program "Challenges for Europe" had its first call in 2017, when Europe experienced a very intensive phase of multi crises: the refugee distribution crisis after 2015, the Brexit in 2016 and a rise in populism across Europe. Four years later, we brought together the 13 projects from the first two rounds of the initiative in Schloss Herrenhausen for a statussymposium. Program Manager Dr. Annabella Fick draws a personal résumé. 

Ansicht der Tagung Challenges for Europe
The symposium as part of the "Challenges for Europe" funding initiative took place from July 19-20, 2021 in Hanover. (Photo: Volkswagen Foundation)

From 19 to 20 July 2021, international scientists met at the  "Challenges for Europe" symposium at Herrenhausen Palace in Hanover to present and discuss their research projects.

Here, the project team could present their first results and their current progress. It also offered a networking opportunity for the teams, for many the first since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the third round has just been decided upon and the fourth round about to start with the deadline on July 23, it was also the ideal opportunity to use the combined expertise of the present researchers for learning more about and understanding better the necessity for research on Europe by European research cooperations.
To collect ideas, I asked the participants to share their thoughts on five questions using a bulletin board in the lobby. In addition three fellows discussed some of the questions with us in the final panel. From the number of interesting impulses and considerations I would like to present a selection here which, in one way or the other, spoke to me most.

Woman standing anext to railing
Program director Dr. Annabella Fick is in charge of the funding programme "Challenges and Potentials for Europe". (Photo: Philip Bartz for Volkswagen Foundation)

What can joint research on Europe achieve and enable?

Why is it important today and in the future? These questions caused a lively debate. The voices heard here were mostly very enthusiastic about the possibilities of such joint research projects. They do not only help to overcome obstacles but also send out a clear European message. Today’s research topics are becoming more European and less national. Researchers are often living this European identity by working all across Europe, especially early career researchers. Important for the cooperations to work out is finding a shared language, not only literally for talking to each other, but also a shared language of topics and methodology. One participant also stressed that European research projects are especially needed in countries where researchers face pressure from non-democratic authorities. For them, joint research projects can be a lifeline when institutional funding is drying up or obstacles are put in their way from the side of administration. With third party funding and the help of their other European peers they can continue their worked mostly unhampered. Last but not least the Corona pandemic also showed that joint research helps to become more resilient at times of shock and crisis. To exchange best practice examples and to join forces in finding solutions for challenges caused by e.g. the pandemic strengthens academia all around.

As an important element for making successful research possible in Europe, it was strikingly clear during the statussymposium, that European research needs spaces and places to exchange ideas and to come together to discuss important issues. Often, however, an open-end dialogue is not wanted or possible. Conferences need to produce results and people are often pressured by multiple responsibilities. Still, discussing European topics is essential to remain innovative and to foresee possible challenges. The European research world is still quite similar in terms of values and ideas. Therefore, research should be truly European and not just national, it needs to be uncontainerized. It also was very clear that Europe is facing attacks on its values from inside and outside. It is threatened by increasing populism and demagogues as well as by influence from non-democratic countries that try to wield their influence in Europe. It is a high priority to help to defend the core ideas of Europe by contributing strong research.

What problems do European research projects face?

Problems along the way to successful European research projects were addressed in the fourth question. It brought forward quite practical issues such as facing difficulties with the administration or the necessity to successful train good coordinators and enable a good exchange between the different project partners. One also needs to reconsider the situation of early career researchers in the projects. They often shoulder a heavy burden by trying to qualify with their Phd projects and contributing the main share of research in the overall project at the same time.

The call is dedicated to the challenges and dynamics of change within Europe. (Photo: mode_list - fotolia.com)
The call is dedicated to the challenges and dynamics of change within Europe. (Photo: mode_list - fotolia.com)

How does one identify emerging challenges for Europe?

The question, "How does one identify emerging challenges for Europe?" brought several (probably expected) queries: which Europe are we talking about? The EU? Geographical Europe or Europe and its closest neighbor regions? These questions are very valid, as a clear definition is not easy to make. Overall, it became clear that it is very difficult if not nearly impossible to define emerging challenges, as they are either already there and considered or suddenly popping up like the Brexit. Still, there are some fields that seem to have great potential for the future, such as a historical perspective on unsolved conflicts in Europe like the situation in the Ukraine, the North Ireland conflict or the autonomy of Catalonia. It is clear that the challenge to find new, underresearched topics is still a tough nut to crack.

There still remains quite a lot of work to be done to create new impulses to research in Europe. Yet, it was certainly also satisfying to hear the answers to the last question: What is your highlight from your experience of researching Europe together? Would you do it again and why? The answer on the second part of the question was a resounding yes. Already during the status symposium different project teams came together and started planning joint publications and future projects. It also became clear that with the program "Challenges for Europe" the Volkswagen Foundation creates a space where researchers can talk about Europe together. Through the joint work, entirely new questions and perspectives have emerged. Overall, the program has its place in the European research world, being more border-crossing than programs by national funders and more manageable than the big funding schemes on European level. It is clear that the continuing focus on capacity building and on enabling early career researchers to engage in the projects is the way towards creative and sustainable solutions for the continent.