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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 42 - August 2004   
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Research in Europe: a stake in well-being

Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner responsible for research
Philippe Busquin, European Commissioner responsible for research
‘Scientific research and technological development are the keys to Europe’s future because they generate more than half of economic growth and because they determine Europe’s political weight on the international stage. By investing in a more innovative Europe we are investing in the well-being of future generations.’ It was with these words that Commissioner Philippe Busquin presented the ambitious plan, within the framework of the Union budget for the 2007-2013 period, to increase the Community’s research funding to an average of €10 billion a year, double the present figure.   Six main lines of research are proposed by virtue of this increased financial support: the strengthening of European centres of excellence, technological initiatives in key industrial sectors, the stimulation of fundamental research, support to attract the best researchers, the development of scientific and technological infrastructures, and the coordination of national research policies. In general terms, the most targeted research fields will be in line with the Union’s priorities and notably include the two new fields of space and security policy.

Mobility: the new ERA-MORE service

The Researcher's Mobility Portal, set up under the Marie Curie Actions, already enabled potential applicants to post their CV on-line, and host organisations and institutions to present details of posts to be filled. Although this vital 'European market place for research jobs' provides a means of matching supply with demand, it is not sufficient to assist those tempted by expatriation to make the complex and very concrete decisions involved in going abroad. 

How can a doctoral candidate or researcher who knows nothing at all about the administrative realities and day-to-day life in the country to which he or she is considering relocating organise the practicalities of the planned move? What visa or work permit will be required? What about salaries, tax and social security? What accommodation, childcare and schooling facilities will be available for the family?

These are all questions which can now be put to the new ERA-MORE (European Network of Mobility Centres) service. At the Commission's initiative, around 200 institutions and organisations in 33 countries participating in European programmes to promote mobility decided to pool their resources to provide tailored replies to these fundamental questions.

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Genetic and ethical tests

The ‘Human genetic testing: what implications?’ conference was organised by the Commission last May in Brussels.
The ‘Human genetic testing: what implications?’ conference was organised by the Commission last May in Brussels.
Genes can be at the origin of a number of illnesses. Genetic tests are therefore an effective means of preventing and treating   them. However, such an approach raises fundamental ethical issues. At the conference on the subject, held last May in Brussels, around 300 participants made a point-by-point analysis of the recommendations drawn up at the Commission's request by a group of experts including scientists, lawyers, industrialists, international organisations such as the WHO, philosophers and patients' representatives.

These recommendations cover aspects including the quality and reliability of tests; the importance awarded to rare diseases; the ban on the extrapolation of genetic information for the purposes of stigmatising traits linked to an ethnic group; the patient's right to information; the private nature of results and protection of confidentiality outside strictly medical uses; and socio-economic implications. 

A specific website has now been set up presenting these recommendations and the contributions to last May's conference. As the debate on these ethical questions is far from over, the Commission has also opened a Forum section on the site to which everyone is welcome to contribute an opinion on the subject.

Europe against the prion

Prion protein – 1. PrPc (normal) – 2. PrPsc (pathological)
Prion protein –
Above. PrPc (normal) – Below. PrPsc (pathological)
On 28 May, in Paris, the NeuroPrion network of excellence was launched. With 52 laboratories in some 20 countries, the network brings together 90% of European teams working on prion diseases: BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), vCJD (new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in man), scrapie and other forms of this disease. 

The Union has approved a budget of €14.4 million over five years to support the efforts of these multidisciplinary teams of fundamental researchers, clinicians and veterinarians. Coordinated by the ‘prion’ group at the CEA (Centre d'Energie Atomique - FR), this new network’s research programme is concentrating on four main areas: prevention based on ante mortem diagnostic tests and the validation of new decontamination methods for animals; control involving in particular standardisation of diagnostic methods; treatment (development of new molecules able to inhibit the formation of the abnormal prion protein PrPsc and new therapeutic approaches); risk analysis for prion diseases.

This research effort is part of a strategy which has been pursued by the Commission since the major 1996 crisis. Since then the Union has grasped the seriousness of the issue and has already allocated €50 million to support the work of the 120 laboratories engaged in combating this zoonosis. 

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The Europe of 25: more women graduates, but more S&T jobs for men

This graph shows the share of and increase in women graduates employed as senior technicians (on the left) compared with the proportions and trends recorded for the working population as a whole (centre). By contrast, the recruitment of men to posts as scientists and engineers is continuing to increase faster than for women who represent fewer than a third of employees (on the right). 

Source : Eurostat

On the platform front

Towards sustainable chemistry

With a turnover of €42 billion in 2002 (compared with €14 billion in 1990) and 25 000 companies employing 1.6 million people, the European chemicals industry is world leader with a 28% market share. Nevertheless, this share fell by four points over the past decade at a time when, on the Union market alone, demand rose from €14 billion in 1990 to €42 in 2002.

Research – the motor for innovation and growth in this industry – is insufficient: European companies allocate 1.9% of their turnover to research, the Americans 2.5% and the Japanese 3%. An increased research effort necessarily involves stronger public/private partnerships able to mobilise the necessary investments. This has now been achieved, thanks to the Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry launched jointly by the CEFIC (European Chemical Industry Council) and EuropaBio (The European Association for Bioindustries), with Commission support. This initiative will be pursuing three fields of research: industrial biotechnology, materials, and reaction and process design. Environmental and safety issues, education and training, infrastructures, and access to risk capital will be the subjects of a horizontal approach.

‘Plants for the future’

This was the title of the memorandum drawn up by a study group on prospects for plant biotechnology, set up by the European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) and the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) in co-operation with the European Commission(1). Having been at the forefront of this field, Europe is now losing its excellence due to public hostility to this research area. Yet sector supporters believe that it offers potential for a more sustainable agriculture and forestry consuming fewer fertilisers and pesticides and less water. It not only has implications for the future of quality food at global level but also for bio-materials, especially as an energy source. 

The memorandum calls for the creation of a European platform charged with initiating strategic research in the fields of genomics, physiology, agriculture and plant ecology. 

(1) The Commission has presented a strategic vision of the life sciences and biotechnology until 2010, proposing, in particular, ways of tackling ethical issues.



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Nano-electronics, the petrol of the future

That is the comparison made by Philippe Busquin, on 29 June, at the launch of ENIAC (European Nano-electronics Initiative Advisory Council), the group of European industrialists charged with implementing between now and 2020 a new technology platform focusing on this fundamental change in information and communication technologies. While microelectronics has already penetrated all areas of society, the switch to nano-electronics means the arrival of a new generation of computers – with quantum computers, molecular electronics and spin electronics (1) – bringing a considerable quantitative and qualitative leap in the performances of artificial intelligence. For the Research Commissioner, ‘Europe cannot allow itself to fail to take up this challenge which will impact on all technological, socio-economic and cultural changes.’ (2)

(1) Based on the kinetics of atomic-scale electron rotation.
(2) See also ‘A factor of three for nanotechnologies’.

A factor of three for nanotechnologies

European strategies in the field of nanotechnologies are strengthening. Last May, the Commission published an important Communication on their future development. Although Europe has a sound knowledge base in this discipline which is closely linked to fundamental structures of matter, it lacks innovative technological developments of interest to the industrial processes of the future. After reviewing the challenges facing the sector, this document recommends an increase by a factor of three in the current research effort by 2010. In addition to increasing R&D budgets and investments in infrastructure, the priorities identified relate to the training of researchers and an increase in technology transfers. Another important aspect concerns taking into account the social dimension and the potential environmental impact of sector innovations.(1)

(1) Also see box on the new Nano-electronics Technology Platform.

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The future of the oceans

Researchers from Ireland’s  Marine Institute measuring fish samples on board the scientific vessel Celtic Explorer.
Researchers from Ireland’s Marine Institute measuring fish samples on board the scientific vessel Celtic Explorer .
Seas have no borders. Over the past two decades, if there is one field in which European scientific co-operation has shown its worth it is marine research. Last May’s Eurocean 2004 conference held in Galway, Ireland, was testimony to the fact with more than 130 projects being presented to an impressive audience of participants.

The number and diversity of the research projects reflect the questions raised by the management of European and global maritime heritage. How can marine biodiversity be protected? How can sustainable development of fisheries be achieved? How can we understand the changes to animal and plant ecosystems? How can the ocean floors be protected? And how can links be established between research results and the actual sectors, such as fishing and tourism? The latter is one of the objectives of the new Marbef Network of Excellence which was among the projects presented in Galway. Made up of scientists specialising in the oceans of the world, Marbef wants to set up a ‘virtual European institute’ engaged in long-term research while, at the same time, maintaining strong links with the private sector and the general public. The network will organise a number of training courses on topics related to the sea (marine ecology and biogeochemistry, marine biology, taxonomy, socio-economic sciences in relation to marine problems, etc.) and will co-operate with sectors with a vested interest in sustainable development of the oceans (tourism, fishing, aquaculture, etc.). 

Another Network of Excellence, Marine Genomics, will look in particular at the workings of ecosystems and the biology of marine organisms. A better knowledge of the development and diversity of life distribution patterns in the oceans (ranging from micro-organisms to fish, and including algae, molluscs, etc.) should enable a better forecasting of changes affecting marine populations, conservation of the biodiversity, fishery management and the perfecting of species for aquaculture.  

In addition, the 15 research funding bodies of the Ecord network are participating in an international programme entitled Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP). Deep-water drilling provides abundant information on marine ecosystems with a view to the sustainable management of marine resources. A number of national research programmes, working in the framework of the ERA-Net European coordination initiative, are associated with the Ecord network.
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