The Strategic Forum for International S&T Cooperation (SFIC) contributes to the internationalisation of the European Research Area (ERA). It is a forum where the EU Commission, the EU Member States and the Associated States to the EU Research Framework Programmes exchange information on international research and innovation activities and try to find synergies in international research collaboration.
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SFIC regularly publishes opinions. Recently, SFIC has adopted an opinion on the relevance of international cooperation in research and innovation (R&I) in the context of the European Research Area (ERA) and the upcoming research framework program called Horizon Europe. A highly topical SFIC opinion from May 2020 on international R&I cooperation in times of the COVID-19 pandemic is also still available.
SFIC is an advisory body consisting of representatives of the EU Commission, EU Member States (members) and Associated Countries (observers). It gives advice to both the Council of the EU and the Commission. The main tasks of SFIC include:
- Priority setting for international R&I cooperation by implementing concrete joint activities
- Identifying common R&I strengths to meet global challenges
- Giving a platform to exchange views, ideas and information on international R&I cooperation
- fostering exchange and enable mutual learning at European level
SFIC identifies complementary activities of individual Member States and the EU Commission. It seeks to create 'European added value'.
Cooperation is put into action:
- by setting similar priorities in bilateral cooperation,
- by finding ways to open up national funding programmes,
- or by linking initiatives at the political level.
The core task of SFIC is to bundle existing initiatives, projects and funds in International Cooperation (INCO) in a meaningful way so that no additional funds are needed.
At the end of 2020, the Strategy Forum published a statement in response to the Commission's Communication of 30 September 2020. In this statement, SFIC underlines the importance of implementing European strategies, such as the European Green Deal and the Digital Agenda. These strategies require close cooperation with partners from around the world.
Furthermore, the opinion makes clear that important developments, such as artificial intelligence and big data, come from other regions than Europe (so-called third countries). For this reason, a common approach is needed on how to work with third countries and how to position Europe in this rapidly changing environment.
With a view to a 'new European Research Area', SFIC recommends the inclusion of international cooperation activities in the Council's decision-making proposals, as well as better coordination between Member States and the EU Commission in bilateral and multilateral contexts.
In its communication dated 24 September 2008, the EU Commission drafted a strategic framework for international cooperation in science and technology. The European Council approved this communication on 2 December 2008 resulting in the implementation of a strategy forum for international STI cooperation (SFIC – Strategic Forum for International S&T Cooperation).
Since its entry into force in 2008, SFIC regularly has met four times a year in plenary under the direction of its Chair and with the support of the SFIC Council Secretariat.
SFIC activities are initiated by one or more members in the plenary sessions. They are often concretised by mandated working groups. The working groups have a regional or thematic focus. In case of an ad-hoc topic, a task force is set up and, in some cases, mandated as a working group.
Most of the working groups have a country or regional focus. Currently there is working group on Africa; in the past there have been working groups on Brazil, China, India, Russia and the USA. Working groups usually develop measures to achieve specific goals in R&I cooperation with the given country. For example, strategic research agendas with thematic priorities have been published and dialogue with the international partner country has been jointly sought (India, Brazil). This involves the local European science officers. Likewise, close cooperation with relevant thematic EU projects, joint programming or national initiatives is aimed at.
The thematic working groups deal with overarching issues of cooperation with third countries. There is currently a task force on science diplomacy. Its aim is to develop a common agenda for European science diplomacy. Priority is given to increased exchange on current science diplomacy strategies, work processes and activities. In 2019, a benchmarking working group identified and compared the approaches and instruments used in international R&I cooperation by the countries represented in SFIC.
SFIC also has a chair that is elected by SFIC members every three years. Since October 2019, Martina Hartl from Austria has held the SFIC chair. She is deputy head of the Department for International Research Cooperation at the Austrian Ministry of Education and Research. The vice-chair is held by a different member state. Tiina Vihma-Purovaara from the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has been Vice-Chair of SFIC since March 2017.
Most of the SFIC members are representatives of the research ministries of their countries. For Germany, this is the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The International Bureau supports the BMBF in its work in SFIC in very close cooperation.
All members act on the basis of variable geometry, i.e. they do not have to unanimously support every initiative, but only those that are also relevant to national goals and political priorities.
SFIC also realises 'European added value' by working with the EU Commission and the European External Action Service to shape political dialogue processes with international partner countries and regions (e.g. with Southeast Asia (EU-ASEAN). The dialogues strengthen the political partnership in research and development. For these dialogues, SFIC tries actively to prepare a coordinated pan-European position.
SFIC also strengthens the international dimension of the ERA by engaging in coordination processes with the Commission on the further development of ERA structures. The ERA stands for a common space for R&I among the EU member states. Researchers, scientific knowledge and technologies should circulate freely. With regard to the ERA, SFIC makes recommendations (e.g. on EU research funding) to the Council and the Commission.
Financial, structural and staff resources of SFIC come from national and EU sources.