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| An international concern


In an increasingly interdependent world, we all face common challenges, like climate change, loss of biodiversity and desertification. The need for a joint effort, for international cooperation, is therefore evident. As concerns research, the EU has already demonstrated the benefits of pan-European collaboration, not least in the area of environment, and with the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), European research is still more open to third countries

Janez Potočnik, EU Commissioner for Science and Research
Our Common Home

THE CONTEXT

International cooperation ranges from increased researcher mobility (where European researchers work abroad or vice versa) to large scale international collaboration efforts like the ITER nuclear fusion project. It is growing in scale, as the benefits of greater collaboration become apparent. Environmental research is a good example of this, since many environmental challenges, like desertification, are replicated across the world. By combining research teams from across the world specialised in desertification new data and scientific solutions can more easily be found.

Environmental research sponsored by the EU already has a good track record in international cooperation. The “Global Change and Ecosystems” programme was the thematic programme with the most third country research participation in FP6. It allocated more than €37 million, or 4.6% of the total budget to fund third country participants in European research teams. A good example of successful international cooperation in the “Global Change and Ecosystems” programme is the ALARM project (see EU Project Highlights), focused on biodiversity, which now has 200 scientists working in 67 institutions from 35 countries around the world, including 17 non-EU countries.

Lessons have also been learnt from FP6, which are now being applied in FP7. The international cooperation activities need to be better structured, through bilateral or multilateral dialogues, and the coherence will be improved along with higher predictability and visibility.

 

THE ENVIRONMENT CONNECTION

The Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) increases the emphasis on international research collaboration, seen as the best way to deal with global challenges like climate change and globalisation, as well as helping developing countries to improve their research capabilities. Where FP7 differs from its predecessors is in the mainstreaming of international cooperation. The new Framework Programme, besides opening up all the research themes and projects to international research, integrates the specific international cooperation actions (SICAs) for collaboration with third countries into thematic programmes. In addition, research capacities are to be strengthened (through better dialogue, for example, or greater sharing of research infrastructure), and international researcher mobility encouraged.

Nikos Christoforides, in charge of International Cooperation in the area of environment at the Research DG, said the response so far has been overwhelming. Indeed FP7 could go, in theory, far beyond the FP6 record as regards allocations to foreign research teams, but there has to be some limit, otherwise EU research teams might be crowded out. Amongst the first calls open to all non-associated third countries in the Environment theme, we can find for example the call for a “Temporary water bodies management” project in the Mediterranean region.

Whereas in FP6, the SICAs were specifically part of the International Cooperation programme, they have now been mainstreamed and can be found in each research theme of FP7. The SICA funds are therefore tied to the theme, not to the nationality of the research team. For environmental research, €24 million has been allocated in 2007 alone to SICA projects, which are dedicated to third countries’ needs and mutual interest. The SICA projects being called for in the first round include the “Integrated resource management in international co-operation partner countries” project and the “Past and future climate change impacts in the Parana-Plata river basin of South America” project.

As FP7 progresses, there will be plenty of other opportunities for third country researchers to get involved in environmental research, as well as European researchers sponsored to work overseas. Environmental concerns are global and growing, and it is only through greater international cooperation that we can seek to understand and solve them.

INSTITUTIONAL BONDING

As international cooperation increases, the institutional framework for joint research becomes more important. The EU is negotiating research agreements with third country partners like China, India and the USA. These agreements improve the institutional dialogue. They also allow both sides to open up their research capacities to each other’s researchers and to coordinate their research calls. In the case of developed economies (like the USA or Japan), research institutions can participate in an FP7 project but cannot access EU funds.

The recent agreement between the European Commission and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is of particular interest, because it links science and policy more explicitly. The EPA is a powerful regulator in the United States, but it has only a small research capacity. Through the agreement, the EPA is able to upgrade its research capacity, thus providing more scientific bases for its policy decisions. At the same time, it allows for closer transatlantic understanding in policy analysis which in turn may bring better policy convergence in environmental policies.

 

 

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