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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 38 - July 2003   
 Europe's troubled seas
 Gutsy bacteria 
 The triumphs of a gene hunter
 Utopia on wheels

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Bullet Treating SARS with respect

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The SRAS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic now seems to be under control: the global state of alert triggered by the 'uncontrolled' spread of the virus has been lifted. The most seriously affected regions were China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and Singapore. On 1 July, the total number of recorded cases worldwide was 8 445, including 812 deaths. A total of 111 cases were recorded in Europe (38 probable and 73 suspected), including one death.

Although the scientific community was particularly quick to react to the SARS epidemic, concern remains that the disease may return. Data is still being collected on SARS and its transmissibility, but serious gaps in our knowledge remain as to the transmission, reservoirs, stability and origins of the virus.

Under the new flexibility mechanism included in the EU’s Framework Programme for research(1) and aimed at permitting a rapid response to urgent needs for scientific support, the European Commission has launched a special call for proposals – with a projected budget of   € 9 million – relating to surveillance and monitoring, clinical symptoms and the transmission of the disease, infection control procedures, intervention and vaccines, and risk evaluation. It was judged essential for partners in the regions affected, such as China, to participate in these projects, especially those concerning the long-term follow-up of recovery cases and ecological reservoirs.

Research projects resulting from this call must also provide useful knowledge in dealing with the emergence of new pathologies and, thereby, contribute to the European network for the prevention and control of diseases. 

(1) The Policy-oriented research actions are due to close on 30 September 2003 (see table of calls).

Bullet ITER:a French or Spanish site?

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After more than 50 years, research in the field of nuclear fusion of light atoms, such as hydrogen – offering a new and potentially unlimited source of sustainable energy, with zero greenhouse gas emissions – is on the verge of taking a major new step: the choice of location for the new ITER international reactor, as work is now complete on the design and construction of key prototype components. This vast project conducted by Canada, the EU, Japan, Russia, the United States and China, aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fission energy and to put to the test the essential technologies for a future industrial reactor. 

Four sites are currently on the table: one in Canada, one in Japan and two in Europe – Cadarache in France and Vandellòs in Spain. The EU must now agree on a single candidate site to negotiate the location under the best conditions and maximise the chances of the ITER site being built in Europe. To make it easier to reach the necessary consensus among Member States, the Commission has charged a group of high level experts with issuing a technical opinion based on objective criteria and taking on board all the implications. 

Stem cells: ethics and funding

Stem cell research is fertile terrain for the development of possible new treatments for a number of diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and certain kinds of diabetes. Research in this area can result in a better understanding of biological phenomena and the development of new medicines. However, the use of stem cells remains a very sensitive issue when they are taken from human embryos. At the beginning of July, the Commission adopted a proposal setting out ethical guidelines for Union funding of research in this field.
These include:      

  • Research of this kind will not be funded in Member States where it is banned and EU support will only be authorised for research that aims to combat certain diseases.
  • Human embryonic stem cells can only be taken from ‘spare embryos’ aged between five and seven days old and frozen following in vitro fertilisation. They also have to be donated voluntarily and free-of-charge by the parents. The protection of data and privacy also have to be guaranteed.
  • The laboratories involved must undertake to make new stem cell lines available to other researchers. A European register will be compiled to guarantee traceability.

For more information: 

Bullet  WETO report: a gloomy energy future

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Global energy consumption is expected to double by 2030. Fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, will still be the principal energy source and carbon dioxide emissions will be running at almost twice the 1990 level. That is the warning sounded by the European report entitled 'World Energy, Technology and Climate Policy Outlook’ which, for the first time, presents a detailed picture of the challenges the world will be facing 30 years from now. (2)

The report looks into the long-term impact of environmental measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to encourage the use of renewable energy sources. It describes the development of global energy systems, taking into account the effects of climate change policies and on the basis of hypotheses concerning economic activity, demography and hydrocarbon resources between now and 2030. The authors estimate that global demand for energy will increase by approximately 1.8% a year during this period. Developing countries will account for more than 50% of this, compared with the present 40%, consequently increasing their CO2 emissions. The United States is on course for a 50% increase in its emissions, compared with an 18% increase for the Union, against the 1990 reference year. Global oil production will increase by approximately 65% and gas production is set to double. Electricity production will grow by 3% a year with an increase in gas, coal and renewable energy (principally wind power).  

'We cannot remain silent about these projections and their effects on sustainable development in the world,' stresses Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. 'To safeguard energy supplies and meet the Kyoto undertakings, Europe must step up its research efforts. The new Framework Programme will allocate   €2.12 billion to sustainable development, planetary change and ecosystems, especially to encourage applications based on renewable energy sources, fuel cells and hydrogen technologies.' 

(2) The WETO report was drawn up by a consortium of EU research teams: ENERDATA (FR), CNRS-IEPE (FR), the Federal Planning Bureau (BE) and the Commission's Joint Research Centre in Seville (ES). 

Bullet Saving 200 000 rabbits

Results obtained by European research now make it possible to use human, rather than rabbit, blood cells to detect potentially pyrogenic substances in parenteral drugs commonly used in the treatment of a number of illnesses. The traditional method involved injecting a test substance into rabbits which were then monitored for any increase in body temperature. To date, the only in vitro alternative solution has been the Limulus Lysate Test, based on the coagulation of the blood of the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). But this produced only partial results – detecting just one type of pyrogen – and did not provide a total safety guarantee for the use of medicines in humans. Research on the febrile reaction in humans and the development of research methods for investigating fever mediating molecules, coupled with perfected cell biology techniques, have now made it possible to use human cells as biosensors for pyrogenic substances.

The EU research project was a joint effort by researchers from national public bodies, private companies and the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) at the Commission's Joint Research Centre. The researchers compared and analysed six in vitro tests relating directly to the reactions of human white blood cells which produce these inflammation mediators. This was done to develop a state-of-the-art method with a view to its inclusion in the European pharmacopoeia – which defines the quality control requirements for medicines in Europe.  

The regulatory authorities and various companies outside the consortium have expressed great interest in the project. These tests – less laborious, less costly and more sensitive than previous tests – have already been used successfully in some 200 laboratories worldwide. If widely used, they are expected to save the lives of about 200 000 laboratory animals a year.  

Bullet Tipping the gender balance

More and more higher education students – particularly women – are opting for science and technology subjects. In nine of the 12 Member States for which figures are available for the 1999/2000 academic year, (3) women outnumbered men.

In terms of degrees obtained, the balance between men and women varies according to country and subject. It is notable that women complete their studies later than their male counterparts (at age 25-29).

France has the highest number of graduates in absolute terms (277 000 in 1998/99) while men continue to dominate in the United Kingdom (227 000). In 1999/2000, five times more male than female S&T students graduated in the Netherlands, and in Germany four times as many did.

All disciplines combined, Finland has the highest proportion of university graduates: 23% of over 15s in 2001, compared with an average of 15% for the Union as a whole. Sweden, Belgium and Denmark also  top the 20% mark.

On the employment front, what are generally known as the 'scientific and technical professions' are on the increase in Europe. In 2001, 25% of men worked in a profession which falls into this category. For women, the figure topped the 20% mark – the EU average – in Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

For the scientists and engineers sub-group, the proportions are different, with a high prevalence of men. In Germany and France, there are four men for every woman working in the field. In 2001, it was in the United Kingdom that an employed male was most likely to be a scientist or an engineer, while women had their best opportunities in Finland, Ireland and Belgium.

(3) Figures for this academic year are not availablefor France, Greece and Luxembourg.

Towards a European knowledge society: the contributions of men and women – Statistics in brief, Science and Technology, Theme 9 – 5/2003 - Eurostat – EC – ISSN 1609-5987

European patents: ICTs in the lead

In 2001, the share of the Information and Communication Technologies (ITC) sector in the total number of patent applications submitted to the European Patent Office (EPO) by EU Member States was 2.3 times the 1991 level. For the United States, it was twice and for Japan 1.3 times the 1991 level. In 2001, the ITC sector represented 15.5% of all patents registered for the EU. Nevertheless, the proportion remains higher for its two major competitors, at 24.6% and 18.7% respectively.

Six countries accounted for 90.7% of European patent applications in the ICT sector: Germany (29.9%), the United Kingdom (18.6%), France (15.3%), the Netherlands (10.4%), Sweden (8.9%) and Finland (7.5%). Relatively speaking, Finland is in the lead with 136 applications per million inhabitants, followed by Sweden with 94 and the Netherlands with 62.

At the regional level, the leading trio is Oberbayern (DE) with 855 applications, Noord-Brabant (NL) with 800, and the Ile de France (FR) with 800. In terms of population size, Noord-Brabant (NL) ranks first with 340 patent applications in the ICT sector per million inhabitants, followed by Uusimaa (FI) with 280, and Stockholm (SE) with 240.

Bullet  EU-Middle East: research as a catalyst for dialogue

'Research is an area in which contacts and co-operation can transcend political and cultural barriers, and in which Arab and Israeli scientists can work in partnership on European projects,' Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said recently. He was speaking on the occasion of the renewal under the Sixth Framework Programme of the EU-Israel co-operation agreement. Israel was actively involved in the previous framework programme, implementing 612 projects, 147 of which were coordinated by Israeli teams.

A significant aspect of this co-operation is the opening up of the Mediterranean: many research projects of interest to the region’s economy and environment, such as agriculture and the management of water resources, have included Arab partners, including the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Commissioner Busquin believes that 'this dialogue in the field on subjects of common interest is valuable and should be systematically encouraged.'

Israel will be contributing an estimated  €192 million to the Sixth Framework Programme's budget, funded out of the Ministry of Trade and Industry's R&D budget (45%), university research budgets (45%) and by the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sports (10%).