RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 40 - February 2004

Bullet Action now

Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin
In these challenging economic times, the Commission is forever invoking the sacrosanct red line imposed on the budgetary deficits of the Member States. This is to ensure respect for the stability pact that underpins the euro’s credibility as a currency. But one percentage can conceal another: 3% is also the official EU target for R&D expenditure – both public and, above all, private – as a proportion of GDP, failing which Europe will ultimately miss out on a sustainable return to growth. This objective is central to the so-called Lisbon strategy, a bold plan launched in 2000 to enable the Union to become the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world. So how close are we to achieving this ambitious target?

In November 2003, Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin made public the latest key figures for science, technology and innovation, regularly updated by the Commission. Together with the results of a recent survey on the 'brain drain', the data do not provide much cause for optimism.

They show that, in 2000 and 2001, the Union's overall research performance was clearly below that recorded in the latter half of the 1990s. The biggest gap between the United States and Europe was in terms of the resources available for private research. An aggravating factor was that that European companies invest more – almost €5 billion more – in research carried out in the United States than US companies invest in Europe. The Union, in fact, attracted 10% less US research investment from than it did a decade earlier.

This shows that the transatlantic gap is widening rather than narrowing, as confirmed by a whole series of indicators – frequency of publications, number of patents registered, trade in high-tech products, etc. A vigorous response is needed, which is now forthcoming at the Union’s highest political levels. In April 2003, the EU adopted its “Investing in research” action plan which outlined a path to achieving the 3% target. Not content with having this plan approved by the European Council of October 2003, Commission President Romano Prodi presented the Commission’s “Growth initiative” at the same meeting. In addition to the emphasis placed on achieving progress in the pledges made for transport infrastructures, this new strategic leap requested of the Member States places great stress on the need to give priority to major research projects. Specifically, it stipulates that a “Rapid start-up programme” should be launched covering such priority fields as space, nanotechnologies, new generations of lasers, and fuel and hydrogen cells.

This need to revitalise research was also on the agenda at the European Council meeting, held the following month, on ways of improving the status of research careers in Europe (see below). As Busquin stressed: 'No more fine words: it is action we need, and now.'(1)

(1) Speaking in similar terms, Education Commissioner Viviane Reding has also sounded a warning that 'the success of the Lisbon strategy hinges on urgent reforms', especially in higher education. 
See also [ http://europa.eu/rapid/start/cgi/guesten.ksh?p_action.gettxt=gt&doc=IP/03/1520|0|RAPID&lg=EN&display= ]

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Bullet One profession, multiple careers

Research is the business of researchers and the 3% target must be accompanied by a vital increase in human resources – an estimated 700 000 researchers over the next few years. In July 2003, the Commission published an important communication entitled “Researchers in the European Research Area: one profession, multiple careers”. This document analyses the characteristic features of the profession and the factors which determine the course of a research career at European level (the role and nature of research training, differences between recruitment methods, contractual and budgetary aspects, assessment methods and prospects for career development). This reveals structural weaknesses as well as significant differences depending on the field of research and the geographical, legal, administrative and cultural environment. These differences, coupled with the obstacles to a cross-border research career, are preventing the emergence of a genuine Community employment market. This situation also has a marked impact on the attractiveness of research careers for young people and the way the general public views researchers.

The communication also draws attention to a number of examples of good practice and the initiatives launched in several Member States to reduce the effects of the above-mentioned differences. These various situations are to be investigated further and the Commission is to launch, on a voluntary basis, a series of specific actions aimed at providing better overall coordination of efforts to recognise the profession.

To facilitate mobility within the European Research Area, there are plans to create a 'European researcher card' – and, for non-Community scientists, the equivalent of a 'scientific visa' – that would make it possible to remove a number of obstacles in the areas of social security, taxation, family reunions, etc.

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Bullet Rewarding team spirit

Magazine Cover
'The Descartes Prize illustrates how the dynamism and commitment of our researchers should be highlighted,' said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin at the award ceremony for this prestigious prize in Rome in November. Descartes does not seek to be an EU Nobel Prize. Rather than thrusting individual figures into the spotlight for their remarkable work, it seeks to reward efforts which are central to the European concept of research, such as team work, networking, mutually rewarding co-operation and multidisciplinarity.

The award ceremony is the culmination of a year-long process, starting with a call for candidacies launched by the Commission the previous year (for 2004, see cordis.europa.eu/descartes). In 2003, 230 teams, representing the work of 900 scientists, responded. Of these, 34 were judged eligible (one in economic science, ten in the life sciences, nine in the fundamental sciences, two in the earth sciences, six in the information sciences, and six in engineering). Women coordinated 17% of the research teams (compared with 13% in 2002) and Central and Eastern European countries participated in more projects than the previous year. Eight teams were nominated for the final stage of the selection process. The Descartes jury – headed by the physicist and mathematician Ene Ergma, vice president of the Estonia Academy of Science – then had the unenviable task of choosing just two prize-winners.

First prize (€700 000) went to the “Polymer light-emitting diodes for displays” (Pledd) project, coordinated by Richard Friend of Cambridge University.

This multinational team of British, German, Dutch and Swedish researchers from universities and industry developed polymer-based light-emitting diodes which open the door to significant innovations in display technologies. The glass or silicon in screens of all kinds could, for example, be replaced with much cheaper plastic.

The second prize (€300 000) went to the Nutation project (with teams from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Spain, and the Ukraine). In tackling the problem posed by the very slight inclination of the Earth's axis as it orbits the Sun (known as nutation), the researchers developed a new model that dramatically improved the precision of satellite positioning and navigation systems, which can now be measured in terms of centimetres rather than metres. This progress could prove of great benefit to space missions and satellite applications, especially in the framework of such major European projects as Galileo and GMES.

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Bullet Exercising research mobility

Marie Curie fellowships enable young European researchers (35 000 to date) to pursue their training abroad. Now we have the Marie Curie awards for those who made best use of this mobility opportunity. Some 84 entries (including 23 from women researchers) met the eligibility criteria for the first year of the competition in 2003. Five young researchers with impressive credentials received the accolade last November at a special ceremony in Brussels during European Science Week. Paola Barbara Arimondo from the UK, Daniel Bonn from the Netherlands, Leticia Fernanda Cugliandolo from Argentina, Marco Dorigo from Italy and Luis Serrano Pubull from Spain each won a €50 000 prize. French physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, granddaughter of Marie Curie headed the jury.

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Bullet Europe’s realpolitik

Europeans do not have great confidence in their politicians and political institutions. The Portuguese, Spanish, Poles, Czechs and Slovenes seem the most sceptical. In countries where voting is not compulsory, the turnout at elections is low, especially among the under-30s (Sweden excepted). Many citizens are concerned about immigration, asylum seekers and racial tension. As for the major social issues, most young people seem to have few illusions – or even little hope – that things will get better, although a fair proportion of them sign up for humanitarian and charitable work.

These general trends were revealed in a major survey carried out by the European Commission with the aim of measuring the attitudes and views of Europeans. More than 40 000 interviews were conducted in 22 European countries. The survey aims to provide a set of comparable data every two years. The longer term goal is to be able to analyse the interaction between developments in Europe's political and socio-economic institutions and the civic sensibilities of its citizens.

Bullet Europe takes historic step in space

Europe takes historic step in space
Months of explorations, consultations and debates culminated in the adoption of the White Paper on Space and a multi-annual action plan to act on the good intentions. Then, on 25 November 2003, the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a historic agreement that lays the operational foundations for closer European co-operation. This accord gives decisive impetus to what is now a clearly defined European space policy, founded on a number of key objectives: guaranteed independent EU access to space and command of the technologies to achieve it; the development of scientific excellence and an assured EU presence in space exploration; more efficient and competitive companies and strengthened human resources in the space sector, especially among young people.

On the basis of this common vision, the new agreement seeks to develop active co-operation between the EU and the ESA – in terms of know-how and infrastructures – on the implementation of the action plan. In the short to medium term, this is of particular relevance to Galileo (satellite navigation) and GMES (environment and security) projects, the development of telecommunications (to close the 'digital divide') and European scientific and industrial participation in the international space station.

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Bullet The science of gender

The science of gender
Two-fifths of PhDs in the EU are women. They hold 34% of posts in higher education, 31% at public research institutes, and just 15% of private sector research jobs. However, in approximately half of the Member States, just one woman for every ten men reaches the higher echelons of a university career. In eight of the 15 Member States, and in nine out of the ten candidate countries, women hold less than a quarter of the seats on scientific councils. Although everybody agrees that women are under-represented and under-employed in the research field, this gap is thrown sharply into focus by the statistics in the “She Figures 2003” report, initiated under the auspices of the Helsinki Group and published by the Commission.

This document provides a genuine reference tool for policy-makers seeking to study European and national trends for highly qualified women (and men). It contains a wealth of statistics, descriptive indicators and explanatory texts relating to the Member States and associated countries. 'We cannot afford to lose out on this pool of intellectual potential, and we must not stifle diversity in research,' said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.

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Bullet Avoiding the wrong chemistry

Risk prevention can give rise to complex legislation. There are about 40 European directives and regulations dealing specifically with chemical products. Cumbersome and ill-suited to the potential dangers of already old products, these texts needed to be recast and clarified. In May 2003, the Commission proposed a new system, known as “Reach”, for the registration, evaluation and authorisation of the marketing of chemical products. This new regulatory framework makes companies more accountable while streamlining costly and bureaucratic procedures. It aims to provide better protection of human health and the environment, while improving the competitiveness and innovation capacity of European industry.  

Reach is an example of participative policy. Last May, the Commission posted a project for this new approach on the Internet so as to gather further comments on its feasibility. The principal contributions came from industrial associations, as well as environmental and animal rights NGOs. Several Member States and third countries expressed their views and many individuals, including those working in the sectors concerned, also gave their opinion.

This feedback resulted in important modifications. Guarantees for the protection of health and the environment have been strengthened and a new more operational system introduced for professionals. Reach is currently awaiting the approval of the European Parliament and Council.

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Bullet AIDS 2003: a devastating year

AIDS is far from beaten. Estimates published by UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in their “AIDS Epidemic Update 2003” report show that last year the disease hit particularly hard, with 3 million deaths and 5 million new cases of infection, bringing to some 40 million the number of people living with the HIV virus worldwide.

Africa – where one in five adults is HIV-positive in the southern part of the continent – is hardest hit. In several Sub-Saharan countries, the mortality rate shows a trend which mirrors that of new infections, highlighting the absence of prevention and treatment programmes.

On the other hand, there are wide variations from one country to another: 39% of the population is infected in Botswana and Swaziland but just 1% in Mauritania, while 1% of pregnant women are HIV-positive in Senegal compared with an average of 20% for Africa as a whole.

Outside Africa, 1.5 million people are carrying the virus in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. By the end of 2002, India had 4 million HIV carriers. The report stresses that in China 'serious epidemics have been raging for several years in certain regions'.

Commenting on the figures, South Africa’s elder statesman Nelson Mandela said that the AIDS disaster was not just a public health issue but also a human rights one. Today, just 300 000 people have access to AIDS drugs in developing countries. On 1 December 2003, the WHO and UNAIDS launched the “Treat 3 million by 2005 initiative”. To support this strategy, the Union is currently developing a set of programmes devoted to AIDS and communicable worth nearly €1 billion, €400 million of which will be through the Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme.

Bullet Living in a hungrier world

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has just published ‘The state of food insecurity in the world 2003’. Although hunger declined in the 1990s, the latest figures show that this positive trend is now slowing in some countries, such as China, which had previously recorded marked progress in combating famine.

The UN agency reports that 842 million people were under-nourished in 1999-2001: 10 million in the industrialised countries, 34 million in the transitional economies and 798 million in developing countries. Chronic hunger and AIDS form a lethal alliance. The food crisis in southern Africa, for example, cannot be combated effectively as long as HIV is decimating populations that could be employed in vital food production.

The World Food Summit set itself the aim of halving the number of hungry people by 2015. The programme is targeting action on two fronts: increased agricultural production in rural communities and immediate food aid for famished populations. A broad international consensus and national and regional political support are crucial to success.

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