Hidden from the Eye – Learning Practices to Coordinate European Research Policy

Europe of Knowledge |

Merli Tamtik

Despite long-lasting resistance from the member-states and the unwillingness to yield power ‘naturally’ to the supra-national level (Gornitzka, 2009), the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation has established itself as a leader in coordinating European research policy. How do we explain this emerging role of the European Commission in shaping European research policy? What are the key mechanisms that trigger such institutional change? These are some of the questions addressed in my recent article ‘Institutional Change Through Policy Learning: The Case of the European Commission and Research Policy’ (Tamtik 2016).


Evidence versus Values and Beliefs

The dominant idea in public policy suggests that policy decisions should be informed by the best available research evidence. Evidence is typically understood as a quantifiable and measurable pool of information in the form of published research, statistical data, expert knowledge or data collected through consultations (Nutley, et. al., 2003). By using evidence an argument can be made that leads to policy change. Yet sometimes policy change occurs in less noticeable ways over longer periods of time without an argument or formal policy decision. For example, the role and importance of knowledge in the development of economies and societies has emerged gradually over time.  While most empirical evidence links clear dollar signs to the concept of a ‘knowledge economy’, governments are increasingly leaning towards the endorsement of a ‘knowledge society’ paradigm that emphasizes public engagement in policy processes, ethical challenges in societies and sees knowledge as a social force, not an economic gain.

Such paradigm shifts occur through cognitive processes whereby policymakers are gradually updating their beliefs and understandings of ideas, values and perspectives regarding what works and what doesn’t. These value-based processes are less measurable, less tangible but can gradually lead to mobilizing diverse groups of stakeholders, resulting in social change. In the core of those processes is policy learning, a process that features updating beliefs concerning policy based on lived or witnessed experiences, analysis, or social interaction (Dunlop & Radaelli, 2013). Policy learning theories focus on human agency, how individuals process information, learn and solve problems, and eventually trigger institutional change.

Cognitive social processes that form a core for policy change is a research area that is often neglected. It is difficult to make a convincing case providing empirical causal confirmation that demonstrates the impact of individual learning on policies. Learning might serve a specific focus and function, yet it is often not a rationalistic process. People might learn things that they did not initially intend to learn. Yet, it is a process that empowers participants by providing them with an opportunity to export their policy preferences and styles to others, enhance particular interests (national or European) or avoid real engagement by choice.


The European Commission as a Case for Learning Practices

An interesting case of policy learning is present by the European Commission (EC), Directorate-General (DG) for Research and Innovation (R&I). Since 2000, the European Commission has been able to secure and expand its position as a leader in European research policy, facilitating and coordinating regional initiatives across the member-states. Working towards the European Research Area, pursuing the Innovation Union within the framework of Horizon 2020 and tying those initiatives with significant financial commitments (budget reaching 80 billion euros for the period of 2014–2020 (European Commission, 2011)) are significant initiatives that have gradually gained momentum for EC and DG R&I in research policy. In addition to tangible policy changes there are less-visible learning processes present in those changes.

I identify administrative learning, network-based learning and social learning in the process of building the EC’s authority and creating a stronger foundation for policy coordination in European research policy. Administrative learning focuses on the shifts in communication style between the member-states and the European Commission. There are three periods with distinct features in each starting from isolated approaches (1950-1980) to a centralized approach (1984-1990) and then to horizontal communication styles (2000-onward). In each phase learning practices are employed to build stronger ties with the member-states. Network-based learning focuses on the Open Method of Coordination expert groups. Those interactions have led to updating member-states’ administrators’ cognitive values and beliefs, resulting in increased understanding and acceptance of the Commission’s work. The Open Method of Coordination initiatives have helped to form horizontal and vertical stakeholder networks that serve as important information channels for the European Commission, giving them a central position in managing this pool of information.

Finally, social learning processes describe how framing tactics are used to construct collective understanding of policy issues. By presenting Europe as a leader in research and innovation which lacks a strategic policy focus compared to its competitors the United States and Japan, the Commission (DG R&I) highlights the pressing need for coherent policy approaches. It is the European Commission that can provide necessary central leadership in fostering the ‘global competitiveness’ agenda. Framing policy coordination as a ‘common concern’ that can bring significant benefits to the individual researchers has been used to approach the European scientists. To engage the general public, a ‘responsible research and innovation’ agenda is employed to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the society at large. By catering to each group according to its specific needs, the Commission has been able to achieve wider acknowledgment and support of its policy initiatives.



The European Commission has gradually increased its role as a broader policy developer and the initiator of regional policy change. The process has been driven by learning practices that help to engage the member-states’ administrators, scientists and larger public with policy debates in research. Taking the role of policy facilitator and coordinator, the Commission has been able to build momentum and secure authority in research policy. While there are still policy approaches and major research cooperation initiatives taking place at the national level, the perceptions concerning the need for stronger regional collaboration are growing. As a consequence of those learning mechanisms, the DG R&I has become an important leader and a policy catalyst in the regional governance that is now increasingly shaping European-level policy directions.

What is a take-away from this case? Learning practices can be used to increase organizational authority. Several factors need to be considered for creating such productive learning practices. First, there has to be political commitment for the process. Only by providing the highest political level support can learning process yield meaningful outcomes. The framing of the issues needs to be relevant to different stakeholder groups. Considering ways to secure participation activity in learning initiatives is also important. This could be done by mutually agreeing on relevant topics, clearly stating the benefits of the process and making arrangements to reduce the regular work responsibilities of the participants, thus making time for policy learning. With those steps organizational performance can be enhanced, creating a strong foundation for strengthening one’s position as organization in rapidly changing policy contexts.


Dr. Merli Tamtik is Assistant Professor at the Department of Educational Administration, Foundations and Psychology (EAF/P), Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba (Canada). Her PhD thesis (2014), titled ‘Expertise and Policy Learning – The Case of EU’s Research Policy’, examined policy learning initiatives as a coordination method in the European Union context.



Dunlop, C. A., & Radaelli, C. M. (2013). Systematising policy learning: From monolith to dimensions. Political Studies, 61(3), 599–619.

European Commission (2011). Horizon 2020 press release. Available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-11-1475_en.htm (Last accessed 3 May 2016)

Gornitzka, Å. (2009). Research policy and the European Union multi-layered policy change. In P. Clancy & D. Dill (Eds.), The research mission of the university–policy reforms and institutional response (pp. 53–75). Rotterdam: Sense.

Nutley, S., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. (2003). From knowing to doing a framework for understanding the evidence-into-practice agenda. Evaluation, 9(2), 125-148.

Tamtik, M. (2016). Institutional Change Through Policy Learning: The Case of the European Commission and Research Policy. Review of Policy Research, 33(1), 5-21.