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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 41 - May 2004   
 Europeans’ political blues?
 Showcasing science
 The allergy enigma
 de Gennes – in perpetual motion
 A parliament in search of voters 

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Title  Doubling European research investment

Just a few months before the end of its mandate, the current Commission has set out its vision of the financial resources needed to support European Union action for the 2007-13 period. In particular, it is a vision which includes a doubling of the research budget. RTD info talks to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, the architect of this radical strategy for growth for an enlarged Europe.      

Bullet You were the one who first came up with the concept of the European Research Area (ERA). You then went on to win the support of Member States to set the ambitious target of allocating at least 3% of the Union's gross domestic product (GDP0 to the objective. The next stage is supposed to bring a doubling of the Community budget in this field.

Philippe Busquin:   This follow-up – which is the fruit of a drive desired by all members of the Prodi Commission – is the logical and coherent consequence of the Lisbon strategy. Following enlargement, Europe is now the world's biggest economic and commercial bloc. If it is to respond effectively to its major challenge – namely maintaining the prosperity of its citizens – it is essential for it to improve its performances in terms of growth, competitiveness and employment. 

At present, its results in these fields are rather mediocre. Prosperity, growth and employment are today dependent on an inescapable priority: the development of the knowledge-based society. This objective must be central to the Union's policies. How? By fulfilling its essential function of creating a multiplier effect at European level. Now more than ever, research and innovation, as well as education and training, are the key elements for this necessary boost.

Bullet A doubling of the research budget is nevertheless a huge leap…

This increase is not in any way disproportionate in the context of the '3% objective' requested of all the Member States by 2010. To achieve this, the Lisbon strategy, first of all, stresses the necessity of increasing research investment by private companies to the equivalent of 2% of GDP and national public research budgets must increase to 1% of GDP. However, in the light of the limitations on the public expenditure of Member States imposed by the stability pact, this figure is unlikely to be achieved. We expect to arrive at no more than 90% of the objective set for public research in the Union countries. The doubling of the Community research budget could help to make up for this shortfall, although not entirely.    

Bullet Specifically, does this mean that annual Union research expenditure will increase from around €5 billion a year at present to around €10 billion a year?  

That is correct. But that is the quantitative approach. To appreciate its real significance, you must set it against the main lines of research and growth policy proposed by the Commission. First of all, the Community research effort must focus on fundamental research. Europe is lagging behind in this field and this is a subject of concern for the scientific community as a whole. The past 20 years have seen a fall in the number of European Nobel prize winners. We are feeling the painful effects of the United States’ ability to attract the best brains. There is certainly a capacity for scientific excellence of a very high level in the Union, but fundamental research is traditionally a national affair. This compartmentalisation is now proving a handicap.

Under the Sixth Framework Programme, we have introduced support for the creation of networks of excellence, but this is insufficient. There is a need to create new types of aid with which to genuinely finance basic research: on cutting-edge subjects, chosen by the scientific community itself, carried out by top level research teams, and selected on the basis of an evaluation at European level. Present discussions on creating a European Research Council, modelled on the National Science Foundation in the United States, are a step in this direction.   

Then there is investment in essential research infrastructure and the development of human potential. To date, it has been principally intergovernmental agreements which have given rise to major European infrastructure. Except in certain cases – the equipment for the Joint Research Centre, the Joint European Torus for fusion research, and the financial support currently granted by the Union to the new GRID computer network – the EU has not been charged with financing nuts and bolts projects. Under the present Framework Programme, however, it does have certain limited means with which to favour the creation and/or functioning of such programmes. There is no reason why decisions to invest in installations to meet new needs – such as in the field of hyper lasers, neutron sources for the study of matter, biomedicine or major genomic databases – should not have a European dimension. 

As for human resources for research and technology, European initiatives, such as the Marie Curie actions, have certainly demonstrated their usefulness. It is perfectly desirable to increase study programmes and cross-border training for researchers, whether young or experienced, and also from outside the Union. Europe has just under six researchers per 1 000 inhabitants, compared with eight in the United States and nine in Japan. Our first projections were to train   400 000 new researchers by 2010 to achieve the 3% objective. This is a low estimate; the number must be increased to 700 000. 

Bullet The 3% objective is banking on a considerable increase in research investment by the private sector. How can an increased Union budget stimulate companies to achieve this?  

The Sixth Framework Programme has already introduced the new instrument of 'integrated projects'. These are aimed at achieving the critical mass of research on concrete objectives on a sufficiently ambitious scale, in which the industrial players – large companies as well as innovative SMEs – are very much involved. Unfortunately, we are also facing the situation of a lack of funds with which to finance many proposals of great value, which have to be rejected.

With increased resources, we could give a big boost to the mobilisation of the private sector. This is why we are already developing the concept of the 'technological platform'. In well-defined sectors – aeronautics and space, electronics, steel, etc. – industrialists, private and public research centres, universities and leaders of national research programmes are coming together to draw up a Europe-wide scientific and technological agenda for the next 15 years. This very concrete exercise, which will be regularly updated, will indicate which avenues must be pursued for Union research policy to become a genuine motor for growth and competitiveness in Europe.

A new and very important field for European research is also linked to the development of a common security policy. 

Bullet The Commission's financial ambitions were published in February 2004. How have they been received so far by the Member States?  

These perspectives cover all the Union's activities, not just for research, education and growth, but also in the fields of agriculture, social and regional policy, etc. Once you put this against the backdrop of the integration of new Member States, some difficult choices will have to be made.

Can we, as the Commission wants, increase the Union's total budget to 1.15% of Union’s collective GDP or will we remain below the 1% ceiling which some Member States want to retain? In any event, there is quite a broad consensus, in principle, for supporting the priority structure adopted in favour of the knowledge society, one already confirmed in the Lisbon strategy. At some meetings of European government leaders, the Union comes under pressure to do more in the research field. Commission President Romano Prodi's reply to this, with a touch of humour, is that charity begins at home. 

In this respect, it is important to stress a final avenue of research which is essential to creating the European Research Area: the coordination of national research programmes. This is already becoming a reality and the 'ERA-Net' pilot programme, implemented since 2003, is experiencing an interesting success. This type of direct co-operation between Member States, in which the Union is both a stimulating and a binding force, is something which must certainly be developed further in the future.