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Connecting regional research infrastructure is the key to a digital and innovative Europe  
​Narrowing the innovation and digital divides in Europe was in the spotlight on 11 July, when the European Committee of the Regions' Commission for Social Policy, Employment, Culture, Education and Research (SEDEC) met in Brussels. 

Members adopted an opinion drafted by Eamon Dooley (IE/Renew Europe), a member of Offaly County Council, on the future of research infrastructure and the European Research Area.Mr Dooley's opinion highlights that research infrastructures have a deeply territorial character. They are critical for regional development, extending from scientific output to the impact on educational ecosystems, and also for combating global challenges linked to climate and the environment. ​

The opinion expresses concern over the fact that, even though the foundations for the European Research Area (ERA) were laid back in 2000, there are still various shortcomings in the ERA framework concerning research infrastructure, resulting in an implementation gap that reduces potential benefits and efficiencies. 

"To address grand challenges such as climate change", Mr Dooley points out in his opinion, "research infrastructures must be capable of integrating with those of neighbouring regions, thus creating greater knowledge-sharing and contributing to interdisciplinary research. R&I policy must be linked the development and implementation of smart specialisation strategies, as these are innovative approaches to boosting economic growth, job creation based on identified regional needs, linking and involving regions in R&I activities".

Another concern is that the share of research funding by the government sector in the EU has stagnated at a little over 2%. There is also an imbalance at regional level: just 31 out of 281 NUTS 2 regions reported R&D investments above the EU target of 3.0% in 2015, with clear research-intensive clusters throughout certain regions in the EU and other regions that are lagging behind, as the recent Regional Innovation Scoreboard 2019 shows.

Mr Dooley's opinion, which will be adopted at the CoR plenary session in October, points out that specific funding models are required across the whole R&I lifecycle to address funding gaps where European, national or other funding sources are insufficient. This could include more creative use of funds from ESIF, Horizon Europe and loans from the European Investment Bank, as well as Erasmus+, Digital Europe, COSME, the Connecting Europe Facility, LIFE and other instruments, potentially using a co-funding model with national research funds.

An innovation divide often correlates with a digital divide. In this context Finland's Presidency of the EU Council has asked the CoR to prepare an opinion on Digital Europe for all: Delivering smart and inclusive solutions on the ground (rapporteur Anne Karjalainen, FI/PES). This future opinion will further elaborate on proposals from the Digital Europe for all roadmap, which was presented at the Digital Assembly 2019 in Bucharest by CoR First Vice-President Markku Markkula. During the debate at the SEDEC meeting, Mr Markkula highlighted the need to ensure that Europe's digitalisation was fully inclusive and did not leave any community behind.

SEDEC members also exchanged views on regulatory challenges related to platform work. The opinion on this topic is being prepared by Dimitrios Birmpas (EL/PES), Mayor of Aigaleo.