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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 37 - May 2003    
 Agriculture and the life sciences: food for thought
 Fighting microbial resistance
 An anthropologist takes stock
 The Museu de la Cičncia in Barcelona
 The digital cosmos

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Title  Ambitions for research

The Sixth Framework Programme is up and running. But that does not mean the debate on common scientific and technological policy has abated. Strengthening the European Research Area and resolute objectives designed to achieve it are a priority on which the Union is placing increasing emphasis, as an interview with Philippe Busquin, head of research policy at the European Commission reveals. 

Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner  for Research
Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner for Research

In his 'spring' declaration – in which he proposed the main items for the Union's agenda in 2003 to European leaders – Commission President Romano Prodi announced an action plan drawn up by yourself and designed to give paramount importance to investment in research and the development of a knowledge-based society. What is the nature of this plan?  

The priority given to research is now beyond question. The objective of increasing global investment - public and private - within the Union from the present 1.9% of GDP to 3% by 2010 was adopted by the European Summit in Barcelona. With the exception of a few countries that have already reached this level, such as Sweden and Finland, this will clearly be a very difficult goal to achieve. Scientific and economic indicators are not exactly moving in the right direction and the economic climate is very gloomy. When faced with budgetary difficulties, governments are tempted to put a brake on research expenditure – or research investment as I prefer to call it. Some have already started to do just that.

This attitude is totally counter-productive. Look at the Japanese – recently they have experienced some hard times economically, but that has not stopped them giving their research effort a major boost. The way out of an economic crisis is 'from the top'. Achieving this figure of 3% of GDP by 2010 would mean an additional 500 000 researchers in Europe. They must be trained, there must be more women researchers and, at the same time, we must attract the best researchers from all over the world.

You mention public budgets. But European companies seem very sensitive when it comes to research budgets. 

This is one of the main elements in the action plan we are proposing. Private investment is closely linked to incentives, because research is expensive and constitutes an economic risk which is only going to be taken if the environment is right. There are various mechanisms for this – financial, fiscal, infrastructural, administrative – and these are dependent on many other policies in addition to research policy proper. 

Europe needs coherency, consultation and simplification in these fields. Take for example the famous case of the Community patent, for which we have finally obtained an initial consensus. We are also working on what is known as the open method of coordination which means better synergy between national programmes to secure an interesting critical mass. In addition, there are also uncertainties linked to changes in the regulations which could put a brake on certain developments – various reservations about introducing GMOs, for example.  

That brings us to the ethical debate...

This debate is, of course, essential, as is the debate on the precautionary principle. But in taking these into account we must not ignore a fundamental and universal value: freedom of research. The acquisition of knowledge is a universal and timeless principle. For me it is essential. 

Towards a European Research Council?
Recently, there has been talk of creating a 'European Research Council' which would be a body recognised by the Member States with the power to initiate and the means to launch cross-border programmes. What are your feelings on this? 

Such a Council could be in keeping with the thinking behind the European Research Area. To date, the Union has had a tool – the Framework Programme – which catalyses co-operation in research and innovation. It is included in the Treaty and has a clear mission of subsidiarity in making the European economy more competitive. Its vocation has therefore been to provide support for 'targeted' research while so-called fundamental research is seen as the responsibility of the Member States.

This divide is becoming rather obsolete. Innovation often comes from fundamental research, which is why more and more companies are funding it and it is now being included explicitly in certain priorities of the Framework Programme for RTD.

Therefore, the time is ripe for the concept of a Council which would federate the scientific strategies of Member States in the medium and long term, providing a   wider horizon than in the current five-year Programme.  But this still requires careful thought on the purpose, missions and structure of such a body. We must not set up another institution hastily, nor call into question the funding currently allocated to the Framework Programmes.

Research and security policy 

The present Greek Presidency of the Union initiated another debate last January, that of the relationship between civil and military research. The Commission has also published a document on the problem of European expenditure on arms, which is not entirely unrelated to research.

Let us speak of security research rather than military research. Europe is peaceful and has no intention of acquiring offensive capabilities. But one must recognise that many civil research projects – in the fields of information and communication technology, satellite systems such as Galileo or GMES, material technologies and even biotechnologies - are of interest to security policy. It would be hypocritical to ignore this aspect and the certain kinds of co-operation that could result.   

In the case of the arms industry, things are totally different. This is a matter for the individual Member States. There is talk of perhaps creating a European agency to correct discrepancies in this field, but this relates to common foreign policy, even if it is clear that there is a research element to arms manufacture. We could therefore look at possible bridges that would permit certain transfers between the civil and security fields. 

On 13 March, Commissioner Philippe Busquin welcomed members of the European Astronaut Corps: 'Man´s adventure in space, which symbolises the spirit of exploration and the endeavour to go that one step further, has an extraordinary image value in our societies.'
On 13 March, Commissioner Philippe Busquin welcomed members of the European Astronaut Corps: 'Man´s adventure in space, which symbolises the spirit of exploration and the endeavour to go that one step further, has an extraordinary image value in our societies.'

You seem to be very interested in space policy. Europe does not yet have its own manned flight capability. Would you be in favour of one? 

In the medium to long term, personally I would say yes. Of course, it would be a very costly commitment and one must be sure to adopt the right strategy. But Europe has succeeded in acquiring some of the best space expertise in the world within the context of acceptable budgets. We have engineers, astronauts, launchers and we are developing a manned shuttle that will go to the international space station. Manned flights are an essential element of space policy and we must not always be dependent on other powers in this field.

Man's space adventure also has an extraordinary image value in our societies. Astronauts represent the quintessence of the endeavour to go that one step further. They symbolise the spirit of exploration which is also the true motor of science and knowledge.