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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N°39 - November 2003   
 Tribology in the 'nano' age
 A dead end in 30 years
 Moulding public opinion – truth and myth
 Biocultural fervour
 A new ERA of research

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Kitted out for space

The European Space Agency (ESA) loves to stimulate ideas, as well as to provoke them in unexpected directions. This includes organising international competitions for young scientists. The very young are not forgotten in the teaching projects that its researchers develop in conjunction with teachers.

Aurora: new frontiers in design

The Aurora programme examines how Europe can participate in the future exploration of the Moon, Mars or certain asteroids and, in particular, those exhibiting traces of organic matter. This involves developing technologies and concepts now, and one of Aurora’s principles is to make use of academic know-how in this field. In a recent student design competition, 17 finalists from Finnish, Italian, Spanish, British, French, Swiss, German and Canadian institutions presented their ideas in Barcelona in early September. Prizes include a visit to the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands, and a trip to the European spaceport in French Guiana.
Success – experiments in Space

A hundred competitors from 21 countries have just taken part in the Success experiment, dreaming up experiments that could benefit from the special conditions – weightlessness, vacuums and confined spaces – found on the International Space Station. First prize went to Adalberto Costessi of the University of Trieste who would like to study the phenomenon of osteoporosis in space. Loss of bone mass is one of the main health risks with which astronauts living for long periods in space have to contend. His experiment would examine, in a weightless environment, the molecular mechanisms that reduce the functionality of osteoblasts, possibly pointing the way to new treatments for osteoporosis, which affects 20% of people. Costessi will spend a year at the ESA’s European Space Technology Centre (NL) working more intensely on his project. Fingers crossed that it will “take off”.

The next Success competition is scheduled for 2004.

Sci-Fi or Sci-Fact

Tintin walked on the moon long before Neil Armstrong did. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) David Raitt believes that fiction could prove a good technology development consultant. To refresh our memories, ESA has just published an attractive brochure entitled ‘Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications’, which highlights a series of concepts which began as fiction (jet propulsion, living in space, robots and launchers) and ended up as fact.<0}It has also launched the Clarke-Bradbury International Science Fiction competition which was won by Lavie Tidhar, a 26-year-old Israeli student. His story is about Spider, an intelligent rock drifting through space looking for a place to lay its ’children’.
Space Station in the classroom

What is the International Space Station (ISS) designed to do?   How was it built? How do people live on it? To answer these questions, European Space Agency researchers have teamed up with teachers to produce an ISS teaching kit aimed at 12-15-year-old pupils.  Available in 11 languages, the kit includes interdisciplinary exercises, a glossary of terms, transparencies, and much more.  ESA staff will be visiting schools with real astronauts to launch the first kits.

Understanding nanotechnology

To build a canoe, you can chop down a tree. But to produce a toothpick, should you start with an oak? Nanotechnology is the manipulation of atoms or molecules to produce materials, appliances and machines with unprecedented precision using clean production methods that minimise waste and reduce energy consumption.  A recent Commission document, available in 11 languages, explains the ABCs of this science in a way that encourages readers to find out more.

The pick of on-line science

Disseminating scientific knowledge, promoting debate between scientists and the public, as well as helping citizens to gain a better understanding of the scientific issues facing society and to dialogue with researchers.   This is the mission of the Futura-Sciences website, which has just walked off with the French Press Guide’s ‘Best on-line scientific information Internet site’ award. Visitors can polish up on their science, embark on virtual scientific voyages of discovery, keep abreast of the latest developments, discuss hot issues, or simply relax with fun activities.

Science in the public arena

The Commission holds regular expert consultations on sensitive scientific issues, mostly involving the life sciences which are developing at an extraordinary pace and have a major potential impact on our daily lives. To make these gatherings accessible to the widest possible audience, summaries of these meetings have been placed on the Internet.

In 2000, the Research Directorate-General organised a meeting on ‘Genetics and Europe’s future’.   In 2001, it held a consultation on stem cells and a round table on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2003, it arranged a conference on the contribution of biotechnology to agriculture in developing countries.

GMOs appear to arouse the greatest public interest. The conclusions of the multi-disciplinary Pabe project (DE, ES, FR, IT and the UK) which examined this issue across Europe, challenge many commonly held notions. Researchers found that citizens are not a priori hostile to change, and are ready to accept a reasonable measure of risk. But they do question whether certain technological developments are really necessary. 

Parallel with this, the UK’s Food Standards Agency has launched a survey to assess the British public’s views on genetically modified food.

Various documents can be downloaded at:


Do you feel sufficiently informed about biotech research which can have a potential impact on your life?

Questions such as this, catching the mood of the time and posed anew every month, enable the Research Directorate-General to gauge the connection between science and society, and to work to improve this relationship in the life sciences. To take part in this quick opinion poll, go to:

Virtual university

Six British and five US universities have just teamed up in a Worldwide Universities Network to produce a programme of distance training courses. The programme combines teleworking and e-learning to offer courses in public policy and management for public service managers confronted with social security problems. The courses, based on an existing training programme offered by York University (which will award an e-diploma) and directed at British civil servants, will now be widened for an international audience.