INFRASTRUCTURES

Sanctuaries of research

In the race for global excellence, the European Research Area needs to develop infrastructures that can match the challenges ahead. The roadmap of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures consists of 44 selected projects. The start of a long story...

Several of the 44 projects identified by ESFRI as priority research infrastructures belong to longrecognised centres of excellence like ESO (photo 1). Others represent new initiatives (photos 2, 3, 4).© ESO
Several of the 44 projects identified by ESFRI as priority research infrastructures belong to longrecognised centres of excellence like ESO (photo 1). Others represent new initiatives (photos 2, 3, 4).
© ESO
The icebreaker Aurora Borealis is a scientific platform for multidisciplinary research in polar regions.© Aurora Borealis
The icebreaker Aurora Borealis is a scientific platform for multidisciplinary research in polar regions.
© Aurora Borealis
HiPER (High Power Laser Energy Research) is a pilot project focusing on energy production based on laser-driven fusion technology. Feasibility should be demonstrated between 2010 and 2012.© HiPER
HiPER (High Power Laser Energy Research) is a pilot project focusing on energy production based on laser-driven fusion technology. Feasibility should be demonstrated between 2010 and 2012.
© HiPER
The Icos project is dedicated to understanding the mechanisms of the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas emissions. Here measurements being taken in Russia’s Fyodoroskoye forest © Andrej Sogachev
The Icos project is dedicated to understanding the mechanisms of the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas emissions. Here measurements being taken in Russia’s Fyodoroskoye forest
© Andrej Sogachev

Like other initiatives in the process of relaunching the European Research Area (ERA)(1), Research Infrastructures aims to establish a lasting partnership between Member States and key research players: universities, research bodies, instrument suppliers and users. If it is to build further on its existing excellence in research, EU needs both to optimise existing facilities and to build new infrastructures, with large-scale projects like observatories, databases, radiation sources and communications networks.

The only way to fund the ever more costly and complex infrastructures required for world-class research is for a number of countries to join forces and pool financial resources.

It is in this context that the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures was created in 20022) with the primary objective of identifying priorities for research infrastructures (RIs) at the EU level.

RIs can be only at one location, networked (distributed), or even virtual.

In 2006, ESFRI established a strategic roadmap of 35 priority pan-European infrastructures for taking forward science and innovation in Europe over the next 20 years. After an initial revision in 2008 to reflect the rapid changes in technological and scientific needs, this roadmap now includes 44 projects. If and when implemented, these RIs will give the ERA at a high standard of excellence in physics, environmental sciences, energy, biomedical sciences and information and communication technology.

Collaboration, a necessity

How do these new infrastructures foster collaboration between researchers in the ERA, as compared to other national institutions? For Norbert Kroo, Vice-President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and a member of the European Research Council, we need to rephrase the question: “Since the middle of the last century, it has become clear that in certain areas of science, research instruments have become too expensive for individual countries to go it alone. The solution lies in international projects between national institutions and governments. The European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are two examples. The purpose of these institutions was not so much to encourage collaboration as to make research possible at all: collaboration was a tool, not the goal.

Norbert Kroo continues: “The development of science requires even larger and more costly instruments, which call for collaboration on a massive and even at times planetary scale, like the ITER(3) prototype thermonuclear fusion reactor. These facts were recognised by the Union when creating the ERA and establishing joint actions. In 2007 the Commission adopted the Green Paper on new perspectives for the ERA. In 2008 the Expert Group on RIs published a report(4) focusing on research priority setting, funding pan-European infrastructures, the need for a specific legal framework, forms of management and ‘e-infrastructures’.”

Michel Van der Rest, director-general of the SOLEIL synchrotron and president of the ERF(5) (European Association of National Research Facilities open to international access) adds: “Among very large infrastructures, photon or neutron radiation sources occupy a particular place. Surrounding the source, which is the most costly part of the installation (synchrotron ring, nuclear reactor, spalliation source, free-electron laser) are a whole range of experimental stations where samples of matter are analysed in all their forms and for all scientific interests.”

For him, “the existence of several national and international sources side by side represents a shared source of scientific potential to the extent that access is open to all ERA researchers. Each beam line station is also optimised for one particular type of analysis, making it relatively unique. This access to a wide range of sources and experimental stations is a valuable asset that needs to be shared at European level. It is not so much an infrastructure’s national or international nature as its international opening and its complementarity with other infrastructures that bring researchers from every country and discipline to gather there to explore samples of material in an attempt to understand their physical nature, chemical reactivity and biological structure, as well as the history of our planet.”

Bespoke legal format

A major difficulty in setting up new RIs within the EU has been the lack of an adequate legal framework for establishing partnerships which involve organisations from several countries. National legislations do not always provide appropriate legal formats for these new infrastructures. Following the recommendations of a working group led by Beatrix Vierkorn-Rudolph, Vice-Chair of ESFRI, a Community legal framework for European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERICs) was adopted in June 2009. This opens the way for developing a European policy on RIs.

This new framework provides a legal personality that is recognised by all Member States. The new legislation should strengthen the ERA, increase the attractiveness of European research at international level, and also open the way to third country participation. To qualify for ERIC status, an RI must have partners from at least three Member States. It may also include third countries, associated countries and intergovernmental organisations. Beatrix Vierkorn-Rudolph welcomes the agreement: “Negotiations between the various partners working to establish new RIs will be considerably facilitated. With ‘ERICs’ recognised as international organisations, VAT exemptions can be obtained. Internal organisation will also be facilitated. The first RIs on the roadmap are taking shape as ERICs. I am eager to see how this new legal instrument will operate in practice.” I will keep research*eu posted.

  1. Other initiatives include researcher careers and mobility, knowledge sharing, joint planning and international cooperation in science and technology.
  2. cordis.europa.eu/esfri/ The 2008 roadmap can be downloaded on: ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/esfri/docs/esfri_roadmap_update_2008.pdf
  3. www.iter.org
  4. Report EUR 23320 EN 2008: “Developing World-class Infrastructures for the European Research Area”
  5. www.europeanresearchfacilities.eu

  6. TOP