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Thematic NetworksContents

INTRODUCTION

   
 

Thematic Networks activity

The Thematic Networks initiative was launched as part of the Industrial and Materials Technologies Programme (Brite-Euram III) during the European Commission Fourth Framework Programme (1994-1998). It set out to provide co-ordination between industry, universities and research institutes working separately on industrially-relevant research and technological development. This report highlights general trends on initiative build up and industrial sector coverage as well as Member State and third country participation. Individual synopses are presented of all the 100 thematic networks operational at present or in the final stages of contract preparation. The data is intended to help potential participants.

   
Introduction  
 

Advanced technologies and the stimulation of innovation are crucial to the revitalisation of European industry and to safeguard European society. Significant pressures include demands for:

  • Cheaper, lighter, stronger and more recyclable materials;
  • Better designed products, with increased reusability and lower maintenance costs;
  • More flexible manufacturing processes, to allow companies to respond better to changing demand; and
  • Reduced energy consumption and much increased recycling of waste streams.


Inter-company technology alliances within the EU, by sector - 1984 to 1995

 

All this requires scientific and technical research. But, the cost of such research is increasing rapidly as global competition grows ever more intense. And, Europe's main competitors have a major advantage as they carry out development and innovation in simpler legal and tax environments.

 

Individual companies have to face much increased risk as they develop new products. At the same time, competitive and sustainable development increases the need for cross-sector synergies and complementary competences. As a result, companies in Europe and around the world are joining forces, both to avoid the need to develop expertise in every discipline in-house and to reduce costs and risks.

 
Framework programmes and industrial research
 

Europe has an enormous potential in its multicultural approach and industrial structure. The European Union strategy for developing competitiveness is now based on bringing together companies with complementary capabilities in a wide range of sectors. Industrial research programmes have been developed to share risks with industry and help companies across the continent pool resources. This has resulted in a "critical mass" of research resources, spanning national markets and scientific disciplines in each field.

 


International inter-firm technology alliances between and within trading blocks
1984 - 1995

Early initiatives in the coal, steel and nuclear industries stemmed from the recognition that Europe could not afford to isolate its national research programmes. Europe had much to gain from sharing knowledge, experience and resources. Therefore, "framework" RTD (research and technological development) programmes became central to the evolution of a global strategy for tackling Europe's economic and social problems.
 

Industrial research and co-ordination play a critical role in EC (European Commission) strategy. The initial focus was science and technology, but the Industrial and Materials Technologies Programme (Brite-Euram III) took full account of the needs of industry and society. It featured a range of activities - projects, networks, training and accompanying measures - to encourage vertically integrated, multidisciplinary projects, it focused on socio-economic and environmental problems and it encompassed initiatives making the programme more accessible to European industry.

Around 75% of the Brite-Euram III total 1,776 MECU budget was devoted to industrially relevant projects, involving more than 800 contracts. The remainder went to co-operative research activities for SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), with more than 300 contracts, and other RTD initiatives. In addition, 90 MECU was supplied for a "thematic" network activity, allowing funding of 100 networking contracts.

     
Co-ordinating actions
 

A significant "added value" was obtained by helping research teams across Europe share facilities, experience, results and staff. This ensured a high benefit-to-cost ratio.

The first concerted actions developed in the First Framework Programme, linking national initiatives across Member State frontiers. The EC paid up to 100% of costs involved in the support infrastructure for research - such as workshops, conferences, personnel transfers and dissemination of information.

 


Trends in co-operative research share in the governmental R&D expenditures in EU15 and EFTA countries
Thematic Networks were launched in the Fourth Framework Programme to co-ordinate European research around common strategic socio-economic goals. While building on previous experience, they made it possible to bring together a much wider, less academically based partnership. The overall aim of this initiative was to strengthen Europe's R&D infrastructure. It has been achieved by the transfer of technology and know-how and by ensuring the needs of industry are widely understood and met.
     
The specific role of networks
 

Networks bring together individual projects and researchers from industry, universities and research institutions. Their purpose is to co-ordinate separate research activities, allowing exploitation of synergies between complementary projects.

 


Increased consideration of networks within the specific programmes

Originally there was a distinction between networks bringing together research funded by the EC and those co-ordinating work funded in other ways. As EU research and development evolved more strategic, focussed objectives, this distinction has blurred.
 

Several networks now include both EU projects and R&D activities funded through national and other schemes. So it is possible to combine projects both from within other EU-specific research programmes - including ESPRIT and ECSC - and within national and Europe-wide co-ordination initiatives such as EUREKA and COST.

Networks operate within the three specific areas of Brite-Euram III:

  1. Production technologies;
  2. Materials and technologies for product innovation; and
  3. Technologies for transport means.

This played an important role in the creation of new, prioritised RTD activities to be incorporated into the Fifth Framework Programme.

EC services had a support and advisory role in the preparation of proposals. This was achieved both through the information centres distributed throughout the Member States and, at a more specific level, through EC officials within the Brite-Euram programme.

To encourage participation and rapid response to needs, some networks were set up using a two-step approach: a non-mandatory exploratory phase and an implementation phase. The exploratory phase was designed to bring potential participants together to focus on an idea for RTD networking and particularly to draw up a detailed work plan.

   
Achieving results  
 

Some 417 proposals, including exploratory phase submissions, were received from July 1995 until the closing date of the initiative in December 1997. Successful networks now cover all areas and most sub-areas of the Brite-Euram programme. The overall success rate within the proposal evaluation procedure was close to 53%. There are currently 100 thematic networks operational or under negotiation.

 


IMT Thematic Networks -
Distribution & Funding in Brite-Euram Areas

A partnership within the Brite-Euram programme requires a minimum 30% industrial participation and should co-operate over three or four years. EC funding covers up to 100% of co-ordination costs. This can include short period secondment, network and network cluster meetings, travel, preparation of information dissemination, exploitation material and other aspects of technical work directly related to networking activities.

 

 

Current networks involve about 2,400 enterprises - universities, research centres, industries and international organisations. Industrial partnership represents 51% of total participation, fairly well balanced between small and large enterprises (44% and 56% respectively). The overall participation of SMEs has risen steadily since the start of the initiative. Participation of third countries also increased throughout the Fourth Framework Programme; it is expected to grow more rapidly as co-operative measures are intensified in the Fifth Framework Programme.

As networks acquire a wider role in the Fifth Framework Programme, it is important to raise their profile. The exploratory phase will be dropped but a preparation phase could be considered under the "Accompanying Measures" scheme to allow potential partners to get together or to join existing networks. This phase could be targeted at SMEs that need support to enter into the higher circle of European projects/networks.

     
Co-ordination activities in the Fifth Framework Programme
 

From 1999, the technical areas of the IMT (Industrial and Materials Technologies) programme will be absorbed into the thematic programme: "competitive and sustainable growth". This will support research activities contributing to competitiveness and sustainability; its strategic approach will be based on the development of critical technologies and targeted platforms where project clustering will play an important role.

 


Thematic Networks - Partnership

Industry will not only have to identify areas for collaboration but also to bring together and integrate activities - especially cross-sectoral projects along the value chain. The intention is to ensure more efficient technology uptake and innovation across Europe.

Co-ordination and pooling of resources will be promoted between universities, research centres and companies, with particular emphasis on SMEs. The aim is to achieve synergy and wider benefits around the objectives of the key actions and generic technologies. As a result, the benefits of the co-ordination infrastructures built up in thematic networks within the IMT programme will be brought to the whole Fifth Framework Programme.

 

 

Coordination activities should in particular be considered when pooling of resources facilitates the integration and exploitation of RTD results and contributes to the development of harmonised standards, procedures, methodologies, processes or common research instruments of high added value to Europe.

Their key purposes should be to:

  • co-ordinate the activities of different research teams;
  • encourage collaboration between stakeholders;
  • achieve consensus, or convergence of views, on key issues with industrial and/or European policy implications; and
  • strengthen and stimulate an efficient RTD infrastructure by optimising foresight analysis, access to and improvement of research facilities and the exploitation of strategic RTD carried out in Europe
     
   
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