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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Research infrastructures projects > Virtual institutes and the research infrastructure of the future
Graphic element Virtual institutes and the research infrastructure of the future
    12-01-2001
 

A new approach being promoted by the European Commission as part of the 'Support for Research Infrastructures' activity of the GROWTH programme, Virtual Institutes will make use of the latest information and communications technologies (ICTs) to ensure effective transnational networking and the rapid transfer and implementation of RTD results into industrial applications.

Based on new and existing networking technologies, Virtual Institutes will bring together, at the European level, the main players in a particular field of research, providing a vehicle for effective real-time communication between the research community and industry. Participants in the Institutes will provide complementary expertise, ranging from universities and specialised research centres to industrial consortia and trade organisations. Newly developed services will stimulate research and provide benefits at all levels of industry, from major multinationals to local SMEs.

Helping to build the European Research Area (ERA)
Research is now clearly a central component of the new knowledge-based economy and is, more than ever before, one of the basic driving forces behind economic and social progress. Europe is, however, still suffering from structural weaknesses where research is concerned. The fragmentation of the European research effort has been identified as a compounding factor in Europe's under-performance in the scientific arena. The Commission's Communication on the implementation of the European Research Area (ERA), adopted in January 2000, clearly states that the "decompartmentalisation and better integration of Europe's scientific and technological area is an indispensable condition for invigorating research in Europe". Among other things, it calls for more diversified action in support of research infrastructures of European interest.

Data networking - the way forward

The Virtual Institute concept is a concrete example of how data networks and the development of interconnected advanced computational resources could potentially impact on Europe's research capacity:

  • By allowing more powerful processing of complex data;
  • By improving access to scarce resources and tools for researchers and scientists across all disciplines, irrespective of geographical location, on a 24-hour basis;
  • By helping research communities to improve the structure and integration of the global scientific community;
  • By bringing new management and communication tools to the scientific community (including electronic publishing, electronic archives, digital libraries and digital "collaboratories").

Much progress has been made in recent years in the development of computer networking facilities in Europe. Although still significantly less advanced than in the USA, the development of TEN-155 (Trans-European Network Interconnect at 155Mbit/s) and the liberalisation of the European telecommunications market have considerably expanded the opportunities available to the academic and research communities. Further developments in this sector are now being examined, in particular the concept of research grids. Skills upgrading will, however, be an important element in ensuring the spread of network use to all scientific disciplines in Europe. There is a clear need to develop a new profile of a researcher able to work using the new collaborative tools of the information age.

  The Virtual Institute in Practice

In September 2000, the European Commission organised a workshop on Virtual Institutes intended to provide a more in-depth introduction to the concept and to give information on the modalities of Commission funding. In addition to the presentations made by Commission staff, lectures were given by six invited experts covering a wide range of topics of interest for the development of the Virtual Institute concept.

Mr Peter Roberts of the International Flame Research Foundation (IFRF) presented the experiences of the IFRF over the past 50 years and its development of a highly effective data network or 'Virtual Institute' in the field of combustion research. The network was developed as a result of the great industrial demand for R&D and demonstration in combustion and related phenomena, and because of the recognition that the complexity of the field meant that no single discipline could handle the work required. "We believe in the concept of the Virtual Institute," said Roberts, "we've been running one for many years now and can clearly see the benefits." The IFRF network operates on several levels: face-to-face meetings, telephone, fax and e-mail communications and an extensive range of on-line services. It also facilitates collaboration between geographically distant entities on specific research projects by providing access to advanced ICT collaborative tools.

  Commission approval for EVIMAR

The first Virtual Institute proposal to have been approved by the Commission is that of the Virtual Maritime Institute, EVIMAR. Mr Erik Styks Petersen of the Danish Maritime Institute recognises the essential role of the Commission funding received in providing the impetus for the creation of EVIMAR. "The need for improved networking has been felt for some time, but without the Commission funding it would have been much more difficult for us to move forward to the next stage" said Petersen. EVIMAR is still in the development stages but the aim is to establish a solid, market-oriented structure providing a range of information and networking facilities and services aimed at stimulating technology transfer in the maritime sector.

A Virtual Institute should aim to serve as a transnational information centre for research in a particular field, establishing the state of the art in that area and identifying future research needs. The idea, however, is not merely to provide a series of electronic information services. The information provided is intended to be the point of departure for the stimulation of interaction between members of the network and the establishment of commercial partnerships. Use of advanced technology tools, such as multimedia conferencing and virtual blackboards, will allow the networks to initiate and support collaborative business projects across physical distances (i.e. transnational). In addition, tailored and specialised services provided through the network could be made available on a pay-as-you-use basis, thus providing a major source of long-term financing for the Virtual Institute as a whole. Such services could include: tailored market research services, access to specific expertise, technology/research brokerage, access to advanced facilities, partner search facilities.

  Creating a lasting framework for co-operation

The long-term objective of the Virtual Institute initiative is to create a structured network of services and information aimed at stimulating the technology transfer process over a wide geographic area. Initial funding for the set-up of Virtual Institutes will be provided through calls for Expressions of Interest (EOIs). So far, some 17 topics have been published covering a wide range of research disciplines. Requirements for EU funding include a strong management structure and business plan, a distinct legal structure and the expectation that the Institute should be self-financing beyond the period of EU funding. The aim is to demonstrate the long-term viability of the Virtual Institute and thus gradually move from best practice pioneered by leading-edge users towards common practice for all members of the research community.

For more information : see the Cordis web site at http://cordis.europa.eu/growth/src/needs.htm or the workshop site at http://cordis.europa.eu/growth/src/ev-work.htm)
A call for proposals was published on October 13, 2000. Closing date is March 15, 2001. For detailed information on the topics covered, budget and conditions of participation, see http://cordis.europa.eu/growth/calls/200003.htm

   
Helping to build the European Research Area (ERA)
Data networking - the way forward
The Virtual Institute in Practice
Commission approval for EVIMAR
Creating a lasting framework for co-operation
   

Key EU funded research

Research on virtual institutes is carried out as part of the Support for research infrastructures activity.

IFRF - has developed a highly effective data network in the field of combustion,
EVIMAR - is the first Virtual Institute proposal approved by the Commission

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