Horizon Shifts: Pioneering Trends in RIs


The landscape of scientifically excellent RIs is evolving at a rapid pace, influenced by a confluence of trends in scientific and technological advancements, funding mechanisms, collaborative approaches, governance and human resources, and ecosystem integration. Central to these transformations is the role of Artificial Intelligence, digitalisation, and the increasing emphasis on addressing societal challenges. This chapter synthesises these trends, offering a comprehensive view of the changing landscape of RIs.



AI revolution: transforming research across domains

AI has the potential of revolutionising research methodologies, enabling more sophisticated data analysis and predictive capabilities. AI is a new driver for quality FAIR data productivity and FAIR data integration, and the AI assisted or automated workflows have potential to become a new tool for data handling. AI can support data curation and categorisation of large datasets, for consistency and coherence tests and for generation of synthetic data.

In domains like the Social Sciences & Humanities (SSH), it is facilitating new understandings of social dynamics, while in the Environmental domain (ENV), AI models are predicting climate patterns with unprecedented accuracy. AI’s role in Health & Food (H&F) RIs is transformative, driving innovations in disease prediction and treatment, drug and diagnostic developments, food security and safety, and in sustainable practices. In Physical Sciences & Engineering (PSE) and Energy (ENE) Infrastructures, AI may become an important tool supporting complex data processing, enhancing energy optimisation and basic and applied science research efficacy.

AI is not merely a technological tool: it represents a fundamental shift in how we approach research across various domains. By analysing patterns in vast datasets, AI is uncovering insights that were previously inaccessible, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Each domain, from SSH to ENE, is harnessing AI’s power to address its unique challenges while contributing to a collective understanding of complex global issues. The integration of AI is a unifying trend across RIs, driving a new era of innovation, efficiency, and discovery. This trend aligns with the overarching progress in digitalisation and the need for interdisciplinary collaboration, as AI can bridge the gap between diverse research areas and foster a more holistic approach to solving critical societal challenges. However, before the promises of AI can be fully realised, it is crucial to address issues related to data privacy, bias in algorithms, interpretability of AI models, and the wider societal impact.

Digitalisation: the new pulse of RIs

Digitalisation is transforming RIs by enhancing computing networks and software capabilities. This shift towards integrated digital ecosystems is revolutionising how research is conducted. For instance, the EuroHPC initiative is critical in fields like climate modeling and genomic research, as it provides the computational power needed to process extensive datasets.

EOSC, on the other hand, is pivotal in creating a unified federated platform for sharing and reusing research data, tools and services across disciplines, including H&F, SSH and ENV, but also opens up new avenues for innovation and discovery, solidifying its role as a catalyst in the ever-evolving realm of Research Infrastructures. [see Table 1]


table 1. Enhanced data capabilities across domains: selected examples
Table 1. Enhanced data capabilities across domains: selected examples



In the evolving landscape of European RIs, a transformative narrative is unfolding, driven by the trend to seamless integration between e-infrastructures and each ESFRI RI, fostering exchange and common approaches. This integration marks a new era of scientific exploration, where digital backbones intertwine with physical research facilities, creating a symbiotic relationship that enhances the capabilities and reach of research endeavours. At the heart of this narrative is the role of e-infrastructures in bolstering the functions of ESFRI RIs. These digital platforms, encompassing advanced data repositories, high-speed networks, and cloud computing, are not mere additions but pivotal elements that empower RIs across various domains. 

In ENV, for instance, the integration of e-infrastructures with observational networks has led to a revolution in data collection and analysis, enabling researchers to monitor and predict environmental changes with greater accuracy and detail.

This integration is instrumental in fostering interdisciplinary research. By bridging disparate scientific fields, e-infrastructures facilitate a collaborative arena where data and tools are shared seamlessly. In the H&F sector, e-infrastructures enable the convergence of genomic data with environmental analytics, leading to groundbreaking studies on the interplay between environmental factors and human health. Such interdisciplinary endeavors underscore the transformative power of integrating e-infrastructures in research. 

Furthermore, the integration of e-infrastructures in research is reshaping research methodologies, steering them towards a more data-driven approach. In SSH, digital tools and e-infrastructures are unlocking new forms of data analysis, offering fresh perspectives on social phenomena. This digital transformation also aligns closely with the Open Science movement, democratising research by making data more accessible and fostering global scientific collaboration.

The narrative of e-infrastructure integration extends to the realms of PSE as well. Here, the complex demands of research in areas like Materials Science, Astrophysics and Energy are met by the robust computational power provided by high-performance computing facilities within e-infrastructures. This integration not only supports the intricate computational needs but also catalyses innovations in these fields. 

The narrative of integration continues to evolve, as e-infrastructures are proving indispensable in the contemporary research infrastructure ecosystem. They are the digital sinews that connect and empower various ESFRI infrastructures, driving forward a future where research is more collaborative, innovative, and impactful. This integration is not just a trend but a paradigm shift in how research is conducted, promising to unlock new horizons in the quest for knowledge and discovery.



Aligning EU, national, and regional funding: the challenge of coordination

One of the primary challenges facing European RIs is the service provision to users often supported by project funding sources at the European Union (EU), national, and regional levels. This requires integration of policies and funding cycles, which can be complex due to differing priorities and administrative processes. Thematic reports focusing on each domain in Section 1 highlight the difficulty in synchronizing EU-funded large-scale infrastructural projects with national and regional funding that often centres on more localised research initiatives. See Section 1 - Thematic areas A further challenge is also to coordinate funding sources of distributed RIs that span across a large number of Member States (MS).

Balancing services for basic and applied research: distribution of resources

Another significant challenge is balancing the coverage of basic and applied research. Although this distinction can be seen as being artificial, ensuring that both poles of the spectrum are covered in the RI service portfolio is crucial for the overall health of the research ecosystem. As an example, thematic reports in the Health field indicate the necessity for services encompassing fundamental biological research in medical sciences, as well as medical-oriented initiatives such as translational research aimed at leveraging these findings to develop practical health solutions. Similarly, in the Energy domain, there is a pressing call to support both basic research geared towards uncovering new materials or processes, and applied science efforts which would translate the discoveries to economic innovation and finally to pre-prototype devices. Technology transfer plays a pivotal role in facilitating the transition of research outcomes into practical applications and innovations.

Fostering collaborative service models: interdisciplinary and cross-domain challenges

As research increasingly becomes interdisciplinary and cross-domain, services often need to adapt to support collaborative projects that span different scientific areas. This requires a shift from traditional service provision, which is often discipline-specific. Energy research, as mentioned in Energy dedicated chapter in Section 1, often involves collaboration across Physics, Engineering, Environmental Science, Social Science and Policy, necessitating a more flexible and inclusive service provision approach.

Sustainability of long-term funding: ensuring continuity

A perennial challenge for RIs is securing long-term funding that ensures the sustainability and continuity of service provision for enabling excellent research. Short-term grants and fluctuating funding streams can hinder long-term Research Infrastructure implementation and development as well as its maintenance.

The funding challenges facing services in European RIs are multifaceted, involving the coordination of various funding sources, balancing different types of research and the needs of users coming from a broad range of disciplines and thematic areas, fostering collaborative and interdisciplinary projects for the development of the European Research Area, ensuring long-term sustainability, and aligning with EU policies. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort from funding bodies, policymakers, and research institutions to develop more flexible, strategic, and integrated project funding models. Overcoming these challenges is crucial for the advancement and impact of RIs in the European research landscape.



Interdisciplinarity and cross-domain collaboration

The trend towards interdisciplinarity and cross-domain collaboration is becoming increasingly crucial in the landscape of European Research Infrastructures. All ESFRI Strategy Working Groups indicate a growing emphasis on integrating various scientific disciplines in their thematic reports in Section 1. This trend is evident in how RIs are evolving to address complex societal challenges, EU missions, and transitions towards green and digital futures. Such integration is critical to harness the collective strengths of diverse research fields. The identified trend towards interdisciplinarity and cross-domain collaboration underlines a significant paradigm shift in European Research Infrastructures. This shift is characterised by a move away from isolated, discipline-specific research towards more integrated, collaborative approaches that leverage digital technologies and shared resources. This trend manifests itself through cooperation within RI ecosystems, for instance through data exchange and development of common services and technologies. RIs are better equipped to address the multifaceted nature of contemporary scientific challenges and contribute effectively to European Research and Innovation (R&I) strategies. This approach would not only enhance the scientific output of RIs but would also provide tools and skills to help address societal needs and EU strategic priorities.



As prominently highlighted in the thematic reports in Section 1, RIs in the EU are increasingly aligning their efforts with societal challenges and long-term missions. RIs strategic response to global challenges, such as climate change, public health, and sustainable energy closely aligns with EU policy objectives like those outlined in the European Green DealThe European Green Deal
and key commitments and actions announced by the EU at COP28.EU at COP28 Climate Change Conference
Not only are RIs focusing on the scientific and disciplinary aspects of these challenges, but they are also incorporating interdisciplinary approaches that bring together diverse expertise. This approach is crucial in addressing complex issues spanning multiple domains, such as combining Environmental Science with Social Sciences to tackle climate change impacts on societies.

Structural and collaborative research models

To effectively address these challenges, RIs are adopting structured and sustained collaborative research models. These models facilitate long-term commitment and resource allocation, ensuring continuity and comprehensive tackling of issues that require persistent efforts. Examples from thematic reports show that RIs are establishing enduring partnerships across various sectors, including industry, government, and international bodies, fostering a holistic approach to research. Additionally, the advancement of digital technologies, especially AI, is facilitating the creation of data-driven solutions to societal issues, bolstering the capacity of RIs to deliver insightful and impactful research outcomes.

Public engagement and societal impact

Lastly, there is an increasing emphasis on public engagement and demonstrating the societal impact of RI activities. RIs proactively communicate their research outcomes, underlining their relevance to societal needs, and engage with the public to ensure that their research is responsive to societal concerns. Through excellence in science and technology, they attract and train the next generation of scientists and engineers essential for the EU. Such trends are reinforcing the role of RIs in society and emphasising their contribution not only to scientific advancement but also to the betterment of societal conditions in line with EU strategic priorities. This underscores the broader impact and relevance of Research Infrastructures in informing and shaping policy decisions.



The evolution of governance in EU Research Infrastructures is increasingly being shaped by the need to adapt to rapidly evolving and changing Research and Innovation ecosystems. This trend requires a nuanced understanding of the complementarity between fundamental and applied research, the necessity of cross-sectoral collaboration, and the importance of adopting a holistic and open approach. 

As RIs continue to evolve within these dynamic ecosystems, their governance structures must also transform to support the seamless translation of knowledge across various stages of R&I, ultimately contributing to a robust and responsive European research ecosystem.

As the European Union navigates an increasingly complex global landscape, the evolution of governance within European RIs must prioritise the strategic forecasting of dependencies and vulnerabilities. This forward-looking governance will necessitate a proactive stance on fostering technological independence, ensuring that Europe’s reliance on critical components is matched by an internal capacity to innovate and manufacture. By reinforcing governance frameworks to support Research and Development (R&D) in strategic technologies, Europe can mitigate risks associated with foreign supply chains and enhance its long-term economic and political sovereignty. Such a recalibrated governance approach will ensure that European RIs remain resilient and adaptive, poised to support the continent’s green and digital transitions in an autonomous and secure manner.

On the other hand, the governance trends at the European level, particularly within ESFRI RIs and within ESFRI, reflect a dynamic and responsive approach to the needs of the European research ecosystem. These trends underscore the importance of strategic alignment, interoperability, openness, adaptability to digital transformation, engagement with societal challenges, and support for cross-domain research. As these trends continue to evolve, they will shape the future direction and effectiveness of RIs across Europe, ensuring their alignment with both scientific advancements and societal needs.



European RIs are progressively becoming more integrated into the R&I ecosystem, marking a pivotal shift in their function and operation. By building interfaces with a diverse range of infrastructures and organisations in industry and academia, and by being responsive to both immediate and long-term challenges, RIs are positioning themselves as key players within the broader R&I ecosystem. Not only does this approach enhance the impact and relevance of RIs, but it also ensures their adaptability and resilience in the face of evolving scientific, technological, and societal landscapes. Research Infrastructures in Europe enhance their impact and relevance by strategically positioning themselves within diverse R&I ecosystems and value-chains.

This strategic positioning involves finding their fit and acting in complementarity to other entities, including Technology Infrastructures (TIs) and partnerships. The distinction between Research Infrastructures and TIs is not clear and, in many cases, it is deemed as artificial. As all infrastructures provide services to industry and support the development of crucial skill sets to capacitate knowledge intensive economies, an ecosystem-based policy should focus on supporting the services provided, not on atomising funding streams by artificially isolating typologies of infrastructures. [see Table 2]


table 2. Strategic positioning in R&I ecosystems
Table 2. Strategic positioning in R&I ecosystems