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Cristina Russo: Science diplomacy

European Commission director discusses challenges in expanding open access to publicly funded research

Cristina Russo, during a visit to São Paulo: “Cooperation in science and technology has a political dimension to it that extends beyond research proper”

Léo Ramos Chaves

When she accepted a position as Director for International Cooperation in Research and Innovation (R&I) at the European Commission in 2013, Cristina Russo, an Italian political scientist, undertook the task of expanding partnerships with researchers from outside the continent as part of the European Union R&I program Horizon 2020, the bloc’s biggest science program to date, with €77 billion in funding available over the period 2014–2020. The initiative, which is open to foreign partners, also has Brazilian participants who are supported through cooperation agreements such as the one concluded with FAPESP in 2015. Through it, researchers linked to research and higher education institutions in São Paulo State can use grant mechanisms available from the foundation to fund their participation in Horizon 2020 projects. Russo also works to develop science and technology policy at a global level.

The Italian official was recently in Brazil on her fifth visit to assess progress on implementing bilateral cooperation, and to reinforce the European Union’s commitment to continued strategic cooperation with Brazil in research and innovation. Her visit to Brazil was also an opportunity to flesh out the principles of Plan S, an open-access pact launched in September by the European Commission with backing from France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and 10 other countries. Under Plan S, from January 2020 all publicly funded science research will be published immediately on open-access platforms. “We are now supported by scientific institutions in Europe and countries such as the United States and China, all of which subscribe to the initiative. It is important that Plan S gain global acceptance,” Russo said in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP during her visit to São Paulo in December.

The European Commission representative recognized the important role that the São Paulo agency can play in advancing open access: “FAPESP has experience supporting open-access publishing. Plan S principles can potentially build on practices already in place in Brazil.” Since 1998 the foundation has funded the online science library SciELO, which in 2018 hosted a total of 291 Brazilian open-access publications across a variety of fields. SciELO inspired the creation of similar libraries in several Latin American countries, as well as in Portugal, Spain, and South Africa.

The European Union’s 28 member states had already approved guidelines in 2016 requiring publicly funded research to be open access. But things were slow to move, leading funding bodies in 11 countries to take a more radical decision and launch Plan S with a goal of “making full and immediate open access a reality”. One of the principles of the plan is that authors should retain unrestricted copyright of their publication, and should have flexibility in choosing licensing options. The initiative goes a step further than the hybrid publishing system. In this system, articles are available to subscribers only, but authors can pay an extra fee to make their papers open access on the journal’s website, even before the relevant issue is released, but this increases publishing costs. Cristina Russo believes Plan S will challenge publishers to rethink their operating models.

Plan S has received criticism from non-open-access publishers. Was the controversy anticipated by the European Commission?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a controversy surrounding Plan S. In fact, the initiative has seen a very positive response. A reaction from some publishers and groups of scientists was expected, as Plan S touches on matters that directly affect them. This does not mean they reject the plan—which is a very bold one, if I may say so. Plan S was launched in Europe by Robert-Jan Smits, Senior Advisor on Open Access to the European Political Strategy Centre at the European Commission, and Science Europe, an association of scientific organizations based in Brussels, Belgium, which helped coordinate the initiative. If there is a controversy, it stems from the fact that leading science publishers will have significant challenges to deal with. This is absolutely normal and is part of the debate.

What is the current status of discussions around the plan?
As it stands now, a number of funding agencies in Europe, and some outside of Europe, have subscribed to the 10 principles* under Plan S. The backing the plan has received from a large number of organizations—including the European Commission itself, the European Research Council [ERC], and a number of important funding institutions, such as the Natural Science Foundation, the National Science Library and the National Science and Technology Library in China, the Wellcome Trust in the UK, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US—means the case for the plan has been compellingly and broadly disseminated.

Plan S aims to accelerate the full-blown transition to an open-access model, and will affect our relations with other countries at different levels

In what ways could FAPESP help?
FAPESP already has experience with open access. The plan is governed by 10 principles, which have been presented to senior officials at the foundation. I think FAPESP could adopt the principles outlined in Plan S, with any adjustments needed to reflect the specificities of São Paulo’s and Brazil’s national frameworks. Plan S principles can potentially build on open-access practices already in place elsewhere. The impact we are hoping to achieve is not contained within Europe. This is an initiative that we are putting into place to accelerate the full-blown transition to an open-access model, and will affect our relations with other countries at different levels.

What is the goal you are looking to achieve?
Europe is one of the world’s biggest funders of multilateral research programs, such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020, which will be succeeded after completion by Horizon Europe, with an even larger budget of between €100 billion and €120 billion. We have been pioneers in funding large-scale research and we want Plan S to become a global initiative. Our goal is to ensure the taxpayers who are funding much of the research get the best value for their tax money. The European Commission requires that when research is publicly funded the results are made publicly available to ensure every euro, dollar, or real spent has the greatest possible impact on people’s lives.

What are the biggest challenges you face in engaging with other countries? How do you address cultural, political, bureaucratic, and legal barriers?
The European Union has a very clear R&I policy, which is open to the world. Our strategy, as European Union R&I Commissioner Carlos Moedas has said, is to foster open science and open innovation, and remain open to the world. The Horizon 2020 program translates this model of openness by allowing research institutions and scientists from all over the world to participate. Of course, we establish a political dialog with our partners and identify strategic areas of mutual interest. We engage with Brazil through science and technology agreements. I also visited Brasília and attended a series of talks with scientific organizations and political authorities, including ministers.

What are your key areas of cooperation with Brazil?
Some areas of current Brazil–European Union cooperation include marine research and life sciences. We are collaborating with a number of cancer research projects supported by FAPESP. We also have a strategy designed to make scientific research and innovation an integral part of our international policy. To me, the challenge is recruiting scientific organizations from outside the continent to join European programs—we believe the finest minds should come together to deliver innovative research. I also believe that science and innovation are an important part of building strong relations with other countries. So ultimately it has to do with science diplomacy. Science can often accomplish things that governments cannot.

What is the European Union’s primary interest in establishing scientific partnerships today? Is this a way of increasing European competitiveness?
The treaty that created the European Union provides that science and innovation policy should aim to increase the overall competitiveness of the bloc. So this was certainly the starting point for our work at the European Commission in the field of science, technology, and innovation. But of course my mission to Brazil is not just about helping Europe become more competitive. I believe partnering with countries outside the European Union is important because we are increasingly faced with new challenges as an interconnected society, and need to work together to tackle them. Another reason that transcends the issue of competitiveness is that Europe produces high-level science, technology, and innovation and needs to engage with leading science partners around the world to solve common problems.

Frédéric Latinis / EC Audiovisual Service Cristina Russo (left) and Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science, and Innovation, during a conference in 2015Frédéric Latinis / EC Audiovisual Service

How can Brazilian science factor into this strategy?
Cooperation in science and technology also has a political dimension to it that extends beyond research proper. Europe has concluded several agreements with Brazil in recent years. In 2018, for example, the European Commission, CONFAP [the National Council of State Research Funding Agencies], CNPq [the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] and FINEP [the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects] signed an agreement under which these institutions will support Brazilian researchers participating in Horizon 2020. Despite the current political shift in Brazil, I believe the country will remain committed to the scientific agreements it has with the European Union. Brazil is a strong partner for R&I.

What assessment would you make of European collaboration with FAPESP in programs such as Horizon 2020, ERA-NET, in bioenergy, and in programs under the auspices of the European Research Council?
Overall, our assessment of our partnership with FAPESP is very positive. We devoted part of the meeting in São Paulo to discuss FAPESP’s commitment to fund a number of important projects on cancer and biofuels, for example. The Foundation was the first to launch joint calls for proposals with us to select Brazilian researchers for Horizon 2020. We see FAPESP as a very important partner and that is why I made it a point to visit São Paulo before returning to Europe from my mission in Brazil. My visit was for several reasons. The first was to see the actual projects to which Brazilian researchers had been recently selected. Another reason was to present Plan S as part of my efforts to encourage global actors to subscribe to the principles of open-access publishing.

You joined the European Commission in 1992 as a policy officer at the Directorate-General for External Relations, dealing with relations with the then New Independent States of the former Soviet Union. What was your work like? Were you then already engaged around scientific research issues?
My career has been very diverse. I am a political scientist, but not a researcher. My early work involved the Newly Independent States, which later became the Commonwealth of Independent States—the countries of the former Soviet Union. The European Commission had established programs to provide assistance to these nations. It was important that we supported not only Russia but also other former members of the Soviet Union as they transitioned to democracy. I headed a legal advisory program responsible for drafting civil codes, which were nonexistent in those countries. We provided technical support in structuring their codes. There was also a program to assist countries in shifting their political systems from socialism to other models, and in adjusting these political transformations to the new economic context.

A challenging role…
Yes, it was a very difficult task. I remember that on one of my missions to a Central Asian republic, the debate over the country’s new civil code got very tense; it was very challenging for them. But it was a rich experience. I only got involved in science policy-making after spending a few years at the central department of the European Commission—the Secretariat-General—between 1995 and 1999. In 1999 I worked as a member of the office of R&I Commissioner Philippe Busquin. But one thing that doesn’t show in my resume is that, in fact, I started working at the European Commission in 1990 as an intern under the then R&I commissioner. So you could say that my career had its beginnings in science policy.

*The Plan S principles are available on-line.