LERU lobbies in Europe for fundamental research and innovation
LERU, the League of European Research Universities, celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on 7 March in Brussels. The network of leading European universities has now grown to include 23 universities.
Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker travelled to Brussels on behalf of Leiden University. Pancras Hogendoorn (LUMC) and Douwe Breimer (former Rector) were also present to celebrate this important milestone.
The early days
Leiden University has been involved since the start of the partnership among European research universities. In 2002, then Rector Magnificus Douwe Breimer and his Leuven counterpart Andre Oosterlinck took the initiative to form LERU. The original number of 12 universities has now almost doubled and from the Netherlands the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University are now also members.
The importance of LERU
Until the formation of LERU there was no clear representation for research universities in Brussels. Since then, LERU has worked to demonstrate at European level the importance of fundamental research and innovation in Europe. Carel Stolker: ‘What makes LERU so unique is that it has a strong secretariat in Leuven, headed by Professor Kurt Deketelaere, that monitors what's happening in Europe on our behalf. That's particularly important for the different position papers that LERU produces. My former colleague Simone Buitendijk, for example, was one of those responsible for a paper on gendered innovations.’
Other important papers have addressed such issues as data management, diversity, online teaching and recently the importance of interdisciplinarity. Stolker: ‘I often find myself turning back to the first paper, written by Colin Lucas and Geoffrey Boulton, What are universities for? You could almost say that that paper is our constitution. I'd advise everyone to read it; it's a wonderful piece of writing.’
The rectors of the participating universities meet twice a year, and the vice-rectors, too, have six-monthly meetings, to discuss research and teaching issues. But these are not the only meetings: the heads of the libraries meet regularly, as do the heads of communication, HRM, alumni policy and fundraising. The connections between the 23 universities operate at a much deeper level than only the rectors.
Stolker stresses the importance of LERU for all European research universities: 'We mustn't forget that Europe has a lot more top universities than just these 23, and all these other universities also benefit from our lobbying for fundamental research. All the papers LERU produces are available to everyone, and are highly regarded, including outside the LERU partners.'
Collaboration more substantial
LERU is not only involved in lobbying, but is also engaged in the substance of university research. Stolker: ‘The deans now hold more frequent meetings. At the moment, Leiden is represented by Pancras Hogendoorn as chair of the group of Medical Deans, and Geert de Snoo is chair of the Science Deans. Wim van der Doel, former dean of the Faculty of Humanities, has done a lot to improve the position of social sciences and humanities within European research funds. That was much needed and led to the so-called Leiden Statement, which is highly regarded worldwide.'
The international networks of research universities signed the Statement in 2014, emphasising the fundamental role that Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) plaqy in today's world, and calling on policymakers, the business sector and politics to make more use of the social sciences and humanities in interdisciplinary research.
And now, after fifteen years? Stolker mentions a couple of challenges: 'The coming years are going to be important; they may even prove to be the most difficult years. A better relationship with Central European universities has been on the European research agenda for a long time. It shouldn't be the case that only North-West Europe benefits from European research funding; this is something the European Commission has pointed out, and quite rightly. And then there's the black hole after Brexit. What will that mean for teaching and research in Europe? We have little or no idea how it will pan out. British universities have benefitted a lot from Europe and they are now wondering what Brexit will mean for them. But, equally, as universities on mainland Europe, we are aware of the enormous importance of continuing cooperation with our British colleagues.'
‘A third challenge is the funding of fundamental science. I am convinced that many challenges in society can only be resolved through fundamental research. At the same time, the financial resources are limited, and there are also other sectors that are in dire need of attention. There are a lot of factors that have to be weighed up. All in all, there's a lot to do. We're meeting again in May, in Cambridge.'
Former Rector Magnificus Douwe Breimer says he is 'very happy' with the way that LERU has developed and the prominent role it is currently playing in the European research landscape. 'The European Commission stresses that we are helping keep fundamental research high on the agenda of the Commission. Initially the attention was focused strongly on medical sciences, but at LERU's ten-year anniversary celebrations I advocated involving the humanities and social sciences in the discussions. The themes of recent position papers show that that's just what is happening.'