45 Nobel Prize winners back ERCEuropean co-operation is the watchword today in fundamental research, a field in which individual countries have very much gone their own way until now. Political independence and specific funding are the main requisites of a new European Research Council, according to a group of experts (ERCEG) given a mandate by the Union in late 2002 to define the contours of such a body.
Prestigious support arrived recently in an open letter sent to Commissioner Philippe Busquin and signed by 45 European Nobel Prize winners, arguing that the Union’s research programmes are currently poorly adapted to the advance of fundamental knowledge. By managing these programmes to exacting standards of excellence and European value added, the ERC would, in their view, stimulate competition between the continent’s top laboratories and make an essential contribution to strengthening the European Research Space.
At a press conference in early November with a delegation of Nobel Prize winners, Philippe Busquin clearly supported their move. The final report from the ERCEG is due on 15 December 2003. One question in particular addressed by this report is how to evaluate research proposals involving totally new subjects or fields still at the planning stage. Also awaited with baited breath is the size of a specific funding line (on top of existing European research efforts). We willl keep you posted.
AIDS, malaria, TB
During a recent African tour covering Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa, European Commissioner Philippe Busquin presented the Commission’s health initiatives for developing countries. Speaking at the WHO conference (Johannesburg, 4 September) attended by health ministers from 46 African countries, he presented the EDCTP (Europe-Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership), progress on which he was able to assess for himself during this trip. The EDCTP is receiving €600 million from the Union to help fund its battle against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. This programme, gathering together both private and public sector researchers, seeks to bring clinical research to the doorstep of populations affected by these endemic diseases, in order to develop new therapies and new and appropriate vaccines.
|Philippe Busquin meets members of an NGO|
taking part in the EDCTP programme at
The Commission and stem cells
Member States have tasked the Commission with setting rules for Community financing of research into human embryo stem cells. Last July it put forward a series of stringent ethical guidelines in this field, in which the Union undertakes not to finance any project from European funds in any country which has imposed a moratorium on this research.
This proposal is in accordance with the Union’s desire to put in place a series of ethical guidelines for the funding of ‘sensitive’ research under the Sixth Framework Programme. The Commission has until the end of 2003 to define and adopt new ethical guidelines in this field.
In parallel with this, the Commission has published a call for proposals to develop a European register of stem cells and for participation in the setting up of public stem cell banks.
European steel: maintaining the impetusSeveral decades of root and branch restructuring under the ECSC treaty have succeeded in adapting Europe’s steel industry to evolving markets. Constant research and innovation have given it quality, competitive products, and produced major advances in environmentally friendly technology.
But acquiring a position is one thing, maintaining and extending it are a very different matter. The ongoing battle between competitiveness and the environment will be fought increasingly in the context of the ever-tighter limits on CO2 emissions to which Europe has committed under the Kyoto Protocol. ‘The sector must continue its efforts to improve its performance and meet the challenges of sustainable development. Only European-scale research, with the entire sector pulling together in the same direction, can enable us to meet the challenge,’ Commissioner Busquin told members of Eurofer, the association of Europe’s major steelmakers. Creating a steel technology platform and encouraging public-private partnerships should allow us to work in a long-term perspective and set in train a strategic agenda for the future of European steel. In response to this challenge, the European Union is devoting over €43 million to steel research over a two-year period (2003-2004).
Public research centres: a neglected sectorAlongside their colleagues in universities and private laboratories, over 100 000 scientists are working day in, day out, in 769 public research centres across Europe, managing a total budget in excess of €25 billion a year. A recent study by the PREST Centre (University of Manchester) takes an in-depth look at 50 PRCs, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It also overturns a certain number of common perceptions about how they work.
Its first finding is that most PRCs have redirected many of their efforts towards the private sector. Whilst 50% undertake fundamental research, 92% of their laboratories are also involved in applied research. Many of the services they deliver relate to the development of certification, standardisation and validation systems. Their main fields of activity are engineering and technology, followed by natural sciences, agriculture, medicine and life sciences.
The study also reveals that many of the services they offer are ‘inter-redundant’. This and the heavy ensuing cost to the taxpayer makes them targets for rationalisation at the European level. For European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, ‘these data form an important starting point for ensuring that our funding policies for public research centres maximise their contribution to the European Research Area’.
Different regions, different benefitsWith many of Europe’s regions developing their own research and development policies, the unevenness of R&D between the different parts of Europe comes as no surprise. The dynamism of innovation varies significantly from one region to another. Baden-Würtemberg (DE), the Île-de-France (FR), the regions of Uusimaa (FI) and Vaestsverige (SE), and Eastern England (UK) each devote over 3% of their GDP to R&D. In other regions, this figure in under 0.5%. Fuelling this dynamism are vigorous higher education and continuous training provision in the South-West UK, technology employment promotion measures in the provinces of Navarra and Madrid (ES), and public R&D expenditure in the Mid-Pyrénées region (FR).
To promote such ‘intangible’ catalysts (know-how, human resources, research quality, etc.) the Commission has launched its ‘Regions of Knowledge’ pilot action, with an initial call for proposals published on 1 August. Projects, which must include partners from different European regions, can address various aspects, such as initiating technological audits, developing new economic and technological models, launching initiatives to encourage university-enterprise links, etc.
This action, with a first-year budget of €2.5 million, symbolises the importance of the regional dimension in achieving a European Research Area.
A week of science
Is science indigestible? Is the European Research Area too abstract? Everything depends on how they are explained. This, alongside proving that science is for young people, is what the various events in European Science Week (3 to 9 November) set out to do. Among them are an exhibition and Internet site showing students’ ‘high-tech’ projects (Stead), extensive presentation and discussion of life sciences (AIDS, stem cells, etc.) (Pulse, Scifi), internet society (E-Aware) issues, and a series of events focusing on the ocean world (Oceanics) – not forgetting fashion (I-Wear). The Kids & Science project (see the Science at our Fingertips section) returns, bringing together young people and researchers. A third Physics on Stage programme, aimed at revitalising physics teaching, will take place at Cern.
|Visit the permanent ‘Microcosm’ exhibition at Cern (Geneva).|
As well as these projects, which are being supported financially by the Commission, a host of other initiatives will be taking place simultaneously across Europe as part of national science weeks.
PrizewinnersThe prize-giving ceremony for the 15th ‘European Contest for Young Scientists’ was held at the end of September in Budapest. Competing this year were 75 remarkably high-quality and diverse projects, presented by 114 young people aged between 15 and 20, coming not only from greater Europe, but also China, Japan, South Korea and the Americas. All in all, 37 countries were represented.
For full details on the prizewinners and their projects, all the participants and the various fields, see:
http://ec.europa.eu/research/press/2003/pr2509en.html et http://ec.europa.eu/research/youngscientists/img/photoalbum/2003/awards/germany-f1030002.jpg
Another European science competition, this time for established research teams, will end shortly with the award ceremony for the fourth European Descartes Prize, to be held in Rome on 20 November 2003. Almost 900 scientists have competed for this year’s prize, and eight teams have been shortlisted. The panel of judges now has the difficult task of selecting the ‘best’ team, which will receive a €1 million prize. Information on the finalists, the panel of judges, etc., can be found on: http://cordis.europa.eu/descartes/
New ESF bursaries for young postdoctoratesThe European Science Foundation has just launched a call for proposals aimed at an ‘élite’ of young postdoctoral students wanting to compete for one of the 25 bursaries on offer under the new EURYI (European Young Investigators) initiative. The grants – to finance research budgets in high-level European institutions – can amount to as much as €250 000 a year and, in certain cases, may be renewed for five years. EURYI has been placed under the control of two highly renowned British institutions, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Engineering Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC).