Fundamental research: basic ingredient for EU competitiveness
EU heads of states and ministers agree with the Commission that boosting early-stage research is vital to European competitiveness. Nevertheless, how to weave that into future Union funding mechanisms remains an open question.
European leaders agreed late last month that research and development (R&D) – along with internal market reform, better regulation and effective institutional arrangements – is a key priority to making the EU the world’s most competitiveness knowledge-based economy. “If you asked me to single out one thing, I think it would be research and development,” Irish premier Bertie Ahern – whose country currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency – told fellow heads of state at the recent European Council meeting.
|Basic research helps open the way to new knowledge|
© Image: CERN photo
The assembled leaders acknowledged that more targeted support for R&D, particularly for basic research, was needed. “The European Council calls on Member States to improve the general conditions for R&D investment and to consider targeted support and incentives to encourage greater investment by business,” the Council urged.
It also recommended the streamlining of future EU framework research programmes to make them more efficient and user-friendly, especially for SMEs. More importantly, the leaders reaffirmed the European Commission’s case for boosting EU backing for fundamental research in the upcoming Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). “The European Council sees merit in enhanced support for basic research of the highest quality and the case for specific funding will be examined. It awaits with interest a proposal from the European Commission which may include the possibility of setting up a Research Council,” the communiqué continued.
As outlined at a recent EU-backed symposium in Dublin, basic or fundamental research – which explores certain scientific areas without a specific application in mind – brings enormous benefits to society and is one of the most cost-effective investments governments can make because it opens up new scientific horizons.
Like the European Council, the Competitiveness Council – which covers the internal market, industry and research – recognises the need to enhance basic research in the EU. However, it was non-committal on the proposed increase of funding for fundamental research under FP7 outlined in the Commission’s communication entitled ‘Europe and basic research’. Ministers at the Competitiveness Council meeting in early March decided to wait for more detailed proposals from the Commission, which are due at the end of May.
In its January 2004 communication, the Commission recommended that a specific mechanism for basic research, with its own funding stream, be introduced under FP7. This is because “the support provided by [FP6] for basic research seems limited. The resources explicitly devoted to it are not very great, and the general perspective… is still very much dominated by knowledge application objectives”, the communication explains.
On the subject of specific funding for basic research, the Competitiveness Council stressed that “an appropriate balance should be maintained with other priorities, approaches and activities in research, technological development and innovation”. Ministers said that the EU needed to stimulate excellence in a wide range of sectors and disciplines. They also noted that Europe needs to improve how it translates basic research results into marketable applications by supporting the transfer of knowledge between researchers and industry.
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Commission's communicationConclusions from the Dublin symposiumConclusions of 25-26 March European Council meetingCompetitiveness Council 11 March meetingPutting the horse before the cart (Headlines 2 March 2004)