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How one research project leads to another
In the exciting field of environmental research, Europe's strategy is determined by the vital need to ensure the widest possible dissemination and exploitation of results. In future, priority will go to funding research projects which build technology or information transfer in right from the outset.
Ecopoly, the "green" version of the famous board game Monopoly, was launched about 15 years ago by a German scientist. Through this game, the researcher was able to increase the level of popular interest in the way ecosystems work. The source of his inspiration was an EU-backed research project in the field of systems analysis, where he was the scientific coordinator.
Such a spin-off from a research project may seem rather exceptional. But it nevertheless symbolises the many offshoots which can and should come from research in the environmental field. "For many years now, the trend in a whole range of projects has been to go beyond the frontiers of scientific curiosity - of knowledge for knowledge's sake - and to consider the usefulness and possible uses of research results," explains Christian Patermann, DG XII's director responsible for key actions focusing on the environment.
This transfer process should be understood in the broadest sense. "Researchers must become aware of the need for scientific results or information to be given all kinds of expression. These may be initial knowledge as a basis for other disciplines, a commercial application, a standard, a directive, or a decision-making tool, for example."
The transfer from one field of research to another can sometimes take some surprising routes. For example, the Altamira caves in northern Spain are well known for their impressive rock paintings. A little too well-known in fact. Their fragile environment has been changed by opening them up to large numbers of visitors, fitting lighting systems, etc., and generally failing to take the necessary precautions. A project under the Environment and Climate programme brought together a multidisciplinary team to study the problem. Microbiologists analysed the biological colonisation of the cave walls which is causing the deterioration of the prehistoric art. When collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis, these bacteria were found to belong to previously unknown varieties. It was not long before a pharmaceutical company showed an interest in these micro-organisms, which could enable the synthesis of new antibiotics. Cooperation between the two teams of researchers was soon under way.
In this case, the cross-fertilisation owes a great deal to chance. The question is, given the vast quantity of data generated by science, how can this knowledge be channelled effectively to those who may need it? And how can you encourage such transfers, when you do not know in advance all the possible outcomes of a particular research project?
Involving the users
"This dimension is central to Community research policy," continues Christian Patermann. "The present trend - one set to become more pronounced - is to involve potential users in research projects at the earliest opportunity."
The PROTOWET (1) project, which will end later this year, is one example of this approach. Following on from the research undertaken by FAEWE I and II,(2) the project's objective is to develop the knowledge base and management and preservation practices relating to Europe's wetlands. Marshes, swamps, peat bogs, flood plains, deltas, and intertidal zones are all ecosystems which present very diverse biotopes. As well as providing unique habitats for rare animals and plants, and leisure areas for hunters and fishermen, they all fulfil essential ecological functions. They absorb surplus rainfall (thereby making it possible to prevent floods), help purify surplus water (in particular by removing nitrates and phosphates of agricultural origin), help regulate greenhouse gases, form part of the food chain, and produce a number of materials useful to man. These and other functions, which are both valuable and free of charge, have rarely been taken into account.
This is why the PROTOWET project is firmly focused on its future users. The wetlands management tool which the researchers are currently developing will be usable by non-specialists and designed to meet the needs of carefully identified users: town and country planning departments, environmental agencies and NGOs responsible for protecting the environment and nature conservation, the European Commission's environment directorate general (DG XI), and international organisations such as the OECD. In addition to management, this tool should also make it possible to implement and comply with national legislation, European directives and relevant international agreements.(3)
The knowledge brokers
Conducting such a project requires dialogue between those who produce environmental knowledge and those who use it. It is very often the absence of an effective interface that limits the dissemination and transfer of research. The parties do not know each other - or at least not well - and tend to think along different lines. There is therefore a need for those who are ready and able to build a bridge between the two worlds.
But could these pragmatic concerns pose a threat to fundamental research? "No," believes Christian Patermann. "In many fields our multidisciplinary knowledge is insufficient. Research must be instrumental in acquiring knowledge. The dissemination of that knowledge, within the scientific community itself, also has an important transfer value."
Getting the message across
Research on environmental change is of vital interest to meteorologists, agronomists, insurance company actuaries, and managers in many economic sectors. This is why the coordinator of the NOURTEC(4) project gives systematic attention to communication. Researchers on this project are experimenting with complex methods for restoring beaches, their findings being principally communicated to members of the scientific community. That way they can be sure that one good idea will lead to another and a multiplier effect result.
But the dissemination of results must not be limited to the specialists. Under the PEP(5) project, which conducts fundamental research on the functioning of marine ecosystems - which could, in the long term, interest the fishery sector - the project coordinator has also opted for getting the message across directly to the citizen. Local press releases have now been followed by a TV report, presenting the population of these coastal areas with a glimpse of both the life of the scientists and the purpose of their research.
At the same time, technology or information transfer is not only a question of ensuring the most efficient follow-up. As public funds are involved, this information is particularly important in order to justify the way the money is being spent. It also shows that the idea of research for the benefit of society remains essential. "The field of knowledge is vast, the scientific questions many and complex, but our resources remain limited. Choices must therefore be made. Accepting that these choices are not dictated by scientific curiosity alone but also taking society's interests into account is one of the ethical components of research," concludes Christian Patermann.
(1) Procedures for the operationalisation of techniques
for the functional analysis of European wetland ecosystems