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

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Biology and Humanity

'In this town of Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Columbus, I want this meeting to be the occasion to set off in search of new continents of knowledge.' It was with these words that European Commissioner Philippe Busquin welcomed the 200 or so representatives of civil society to the ‘Modern biology and visions of humanity’ conference. Held on 22 and 23 March, This Commission-backed event aimed to promote dialogue between biologists, philosophers, sociologists and artists on the contemporary implications of biology. To encourage this interdisciplinary dialogue, each session consisted of two 30-minute presentations, followed by comments from the assembled experts. Seated in a semicircle as if in a television studio, they also answered questions from the public. The subjects discussed at this meeting, organised by the 13 members of the European Life Sciences Group, were progress, reductionism in biology, democracy in sciences and, finally, science fiction as a symbol of the contribution art can make to science.

A book by the same title carries 14 of the diverse papers presented at the conference. They include articles by the Italian philosopher Evandro Agazzi on the notion of progress, by the English neurobiologist Steven Rose on the limits of the reductionist approach to biology, and by the American chemist Carl Djerassi on the scope for scientific communication using literary vehicles, such as theatre, the novel and song. Djerassi amazed the audience when he played a piece of rap music dedicated to NO, or nitrogen monoxide, which acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. This event in Genoa, European cultural capital in 2004, was a forceful reminder of the importance of including science and technology in any conception of culture. 

  • To find out more
    Modern biology and visions of humanity
    In English: Multi-Science Publishing Co
    In French: Editions de Boeck-Université, Brussels, 2004  
    In Italian: Centro Stampa d’Ateneo

Steeling for success 

EUROFER, the group of European iron and steel industries, has published a document entitled Vision 2030 which provides a strategic basis for the Steel technology platform.     The document can be downloaded at this address
EUROFER, the group of European iron and steel industries, has published a document entitled Vision 2030 which provides a strategic basis for the Steel technology platform.

The document can be downloaded at this address

European steel is huge: annual production of 160 million tonnes, a turnover of almost €100 billion, 250 000 direct jobs, 1.3 million jobs upstream in the metal construction and automobile sectors alone. Today, the industry ranks number one worldwide in terms of production, technological performance and environmental friendliness. Following decades of crisis and restructuring, 'innovation has saved European steel'’, as Commissioner Busquin declared on launching the new Steel technology platform in March. 'But we must continue to intensify research and increase investments in the face of the challenges of globalisation and sustainable development,' he continued. 

Set up in response to this need, the platform represents the entire European industry – producers and users – as well as the sector's considerable research capacities. Its aim is to identify the remaining challenges(1) and to develop – with Union support – innovation strategies for the next two decades.

(1) These include the need to restructure the steel sector in the new Member States. Their annual production – currently 26 million tonnes – represents 16.5% of the EU-15 level. 

Spotlight on green technologies

They exist, they are clean and economically feasible, and they are easy to use and available in sufficient quantities. At the end of January 2004, the Commission presented its Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP). The initiative aims to remove the many obstacles to these technologies finding their way into the market. They can play a crucial role in Europe's competitiveness in the context of 'sustainable globalisation'. At the industrial level, ETAP proposes implementation of a technological certification system to guarantee the performance of innovations and reduce access time to the market.  

The research sector, too, must serve as a springboard for this promotion of green technologies. Under the Sixth Framework Programme, the ETAP aims to reinforce calls for projects to this end. The plan also recommends quickly setting up a technology platform centred on water supply and sanitation – a particularly crucial field for the global market. 

Security: the growing challenge

With terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, rogue states, regional conflicts and organised crime, the list of security threats is as long as it is real – as the newspaper headlines regularly remind us. The issue of strengthening Europe's common security has also become a recurrent and major subject of discussion at gatherings of European leaders.

To date, European common security strategy has lacked one essential element: co-operation in terms of the technological resources which are vital to any real European security policy. Although sometimes the subject of intergovernmental agreements, defence R&D has traditionally been deemed a politically sensitive area of national sovereignty. Faced with the globalisation of threats, this excessive fragmentation of structures and programmes is coming to be seen as a handicap. In addition to the high level of duplication, there are also major problems in terms of mobilising resources (both military and civil, as the technologies employed are often 'dual use'), the profitability of applications, and the interoperability of systems. 

With a mandate from the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, the Commission has decided to implement a 'preparatory action', with a budget of €65 million over three years to lay the foundations for a European security research programme, scheduled for launch in 2006. The programme will follow a cautious approach, first testing and demonstrating the potential benefits of increased Union investment in this field. Five priority missions have been identified for the calls for proposals:   'situation awareness' (surveillance of borders and localisation devices); network security; protection against terrorism (especially chemical or biological attacks); operational crisis management; the interoperability of information and communications systems. Support actions (forward studies, normalisation, dissemination of knowledge, etc.) are also planned. 

'The cross-fertilisation of the ideas and results of civil and military research has exciting research potential for an enlarged Europe,'   stresses Commissioner Philippe Busquin. 'Increased European R&D in the security field is also part of a dynamic making it possible to increase research investment to 3% of GDP.' 

2014, a Rosetta odyssey 

'Rosetta is one of the most ambitious space missions ever undertaken, in terms of the expected scientific benefits and the scale and complexity of the interplanetary manoeuvres involved,' believes David Southwood, Director of the ESA's scientific programme. Following years of preparations (and the delay of earlier projects due to problems with Ariane 5), the Rosetta probe (3 tonnes in weight and 3 metres high) took off from Kourou in French Guiana on 2 March 2004. Its decade-long voyage will culminate when it meets up with the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in November 2014. Under the auspices of the European Space Agency, the device was built by an industrial team of more than 50 contractors from 14 European countries. Technical assistance was also provided by the United States.    

Like the previous attempt to chase Halley's comet, this rendez-vous will be a great moment of suspense in the history of space. Rosetta's high-tech cameras will photograph this heavenly body from every angle and deposit a lander on the comet surface to carry out experiments.

The on-board instruments (cameras, spectrometers and sensors) will gather a unique body of data on the comet's core, shape, density and chemical composition. They will also make it possible to analyse the gas and dust particles present in the nebulous cloud that surrounds it, as well as the interactions with solar wind. 

Rosetta's mission should go some way to lifting the cloak of mystery that still surrounds the solar system. The composition of comets is, in fact, the same as that of the solar system during its embryonic initial stages, about 4 600 million years ago. Rosetta should also shed light on the role of comets in the appearance of life on Earth. 

Scientific passports 

A new European initiative is giving further momentum to the mobility of researchers: the ‘scientific visa’. The Commission has just adopted a proposal for a directive and two recommendations for the launch of the document which, issued within 30 days of submitting an application, will enable nationals of all non-EU countries to reside for limited periods in a Member State for specific research purposes (temporary contract, grant, etc.). These researchers will be free to travel anywhere in the Union.

For the purposes of the visa, the concept of 'researcher' is understood in the widest sense of the term and covers any person qualified in the fields of knowledge and innovation. Raffaele Liberali, Head of the Human Factor, Mobility and Marie Curie Actions Directorate at the Research DG, stresses that 'the Union has taken a step to facilitate visits by researchers at a time when other parts of the world, the United States for example, are moving in the opposite direction. This represents a real opportunity for Europe.' 

Hydrogen generation 

Convertible to mechanical or electrical energy and heat – in particular by using electrochemical converters known as 'fuel cells' – hydrogen is a clean energy source set to play a major role as a substitute for fossil fuels. The Union has included this alternative technology among the priorities for its energy policy of the future. Under the Sixth Framework Programme, financial support of almost €100 million, coupled with private investment of the same amount, has already been granted to new R&D projects in this field. Other calls for proposals to be issued under the priority research themes (energy, aeronautics, land transport, industrial technologies) later this year will result in the mobilisation of public and private financial resources of around   €300 million, one half in the form of Community research.

As part of the wide-ranging European initiative for research, launched by Commission President Romano Prodi in 2003, this multidisciplinary research effort is the point of departure for the Quick Start programme designed to encourage the development of the infrastructures, networks and knowledge needed to get a genuine 'hydrogen economy' up and running. Based on the creation of a European technology platform of private and public sector researchers, industry and the financial world, it aims to demonstrate that this energy source is both technologically and economically viable. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls: the eye of the synchrotron

A team of researchers from the Hebrew University (IL), the University of Kiel (DE) and Darebury Laboratory (UK) have been working at the European Synchroton Radiation Facility in Grenoble (FR) to study, using the Microfocus beam line, the fibres and pigments of the material in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were wrapped. 

Using ESRF technology, it is possible to determine the scrolls’ composition on the basis of a sample just one hundredth of a millimetre in diameter. 'We discovered that they consist of several materials, such as linen and wool. Some fragments contained only cotton, a textile which did not arrive in Europe and the Middle East until several centuries after the period when the Dead Sea Scrolls were believed to have been written. This tells us that the fabric is more recent than the Scrolls themselves,' explains Jan Gunneweg, the project manager.

These 800 or so Hebrew, Greek and Armenian documents were discovered by Bedouins, in 1947, in caves in the region of Qumrân, on the West Bank of the River Jordan. They are believed to have been written between the second century BC and the first century AD and must have been the library of a Jewish community, probably the Essenes. The texts tell us of the life of this community and the beliefs and practices of the early Christians.