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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 43 - November 2004   
 Goodbye, Mr Busquin
 Reducing congestion on the inflammation highways
 Childhood diets
 Neighbourhood science 
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 Capturing distant worlds on film

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Title  Strengthening European research

At the beginning of 2004, the European Commission launched a very ambitious debate on the future of European research policy, proposing to double its budget. In June, it sketched the essential strategy to be pursued by this strengthened policy. RTD info talks to Achilleas Mitsos, Director-General for Research at the European Commission.

Achilleas Mitsos, Director-General for Research at the European Commission © Thierry Maroit
Achilleas Mitsos, Director-General for Research at the European Commission
© Thierry Maroit
Among the Commission's principal proposals, the plan to set up a European Research Council (ERC), following urgent demands from the scientific community, is a major innovation. What will this new instrument bring?

The course set by the Union – known as the Lisbon Strategy – is to secure its prosperity and competitiveness by meeting the challenges of the information society. To do so, it is clearly necessary for the EU to increase its capacities and its excellence in the field of fundamental research, the aims of which are often uncertain and the results as random as they are original. That raises new questions. It is hard to see on what knowledge basis the Council, the Commission, or the Parliament, could say to scientists "carry out research on this or that puzzling physical or biological particularity, and come up with something for us…".

That is why the particular innovation of setting up an ERC lies in granting the scientific community the freedom to choose its own research priorities that can then be financed out of a European budget. It is not a question of treating scientists to a particular largesse. The aim is to introduce a rigorous principle of competition for excellence, subject to control by peer review. 

Is the notion of an ERC accepted by the Member States and what scale of financing are we talking about? 

The idea has gained ground. It is a formula that has shown its worth. The value of the research carried out by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States is recognised worldwide. Structures of excellence of this kind exist in the United Kingdom and other Northern European countries.

As for the resources, first of all, there must be consensus on the increase in the global budget allocated to European research. After that, we can talk about how it is to be allocated. But we may assume that launching the ERC will require major sums. In fields targeted with relative precision, we can initiate 'pilot instruments' that will test the needs to be met and existing capacities. But we will not undertake fundamental research on a pilot scale; that would not make any sense.   

What are the other boosts to research policy that justify doubling the budget?  

Increased resources will make it possible to develop three lines of research that have already been on the table for some time. In addition to fundamental research, the Lisbon Strategy calls for a drive to increase Europe's technological excellence. We are currently putting together a number of 'platforms' in which research players – universities, research centres and industry – can team up with the world of finance and regulatory bodies to define development agendas and bring together European and national resources, both public and private, in a number of well-defined fields. The hydrogen economy, solar photovoltaic energy, nanoelectronics, mobile communications and on-board computer systems are all examples. The aim is to mobilise a critical mass of excellence, know-how and resources that could take concrete shape in the form of joint initiatives on a larger scale. One particular possibility that can be envisaged is the creation of joint enterprises, a formula for which the Union Constitution makes explicit provision.

A second line is financing research infrastructures of European interest. There has been a consensus, in principle, on this subject for some time already, but it must be admitted that to date we have failed to act on it. It is not easy to choose a major investment in one sector rather than another, or to decide what country or region is going to reap the benefits of having it based there. But we must succeed in this. The needs exist and, in 2003, we set up the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESRI) that is organising an independent debate on the choices to be made.

The third component to be strengthened is one of the essential foundations of the European Research Area: increased coordination between national science and technology programmes and policies. This goal is currently being tested in the present ERA-Net actions to support the networking and mutual opening up of programmes. As the Treaty states, the aim is also for the Union to make a significant contribution to 'variable geometry' programmes carried out jointly by a limited number of Member States. 

But do these new deployments of research policy not relate poorly to the present Framework Programme’s thematic priorities?  

Certainly not. These developments broaden the horizon of the future Framework Programme. But it will continue to allocate a large part of its budget to supporting co-operation between teams within the European Research Area and on identified priorities. 

The Sixth Framework Programme, which is only now really getting into its stride, will finance projects until 2006. In particular, it introduced support for Networks of Excellence and Integrated Projects. The impact of these new dynamic tools on restructuring research potential in the Union has just been analysed by a group of experts, and they will make it more efficient.

As for adapting choices for the thematic priorities, this will be the result of the evaluation and consultation exercise which begins in 2005 on technical preparations for the next Framework Programme that will commence at the end of 2006. In any event, there is wide-ranging political agreement to integrate in full two new fields into the research priorities. Programmes and applications in the field of space science is one of them, a   field of competence that the Constitution clearly entrusts to the Union. To this end, the ESA and Commission have already signed a co-operation agreement to develop common lines of research. Secondly, there is the major security challenge, which is currently the subject of a preparatory action to set up the elements of a specific programme.

And what about the horizontal themes that generated such intense action at Community level, such as the 'science and society' issue or support for research in favour of the new Member States? International scientific co-operation was previously a well-identified programme. Has this not become less visible within the thematic priorities?

The reason science and society is not featured as such in the orientations currently being discussed is because this is not an issue that is posed, in the present context, in financial terms. But I do not understand why this should mean that the Commission has lost interest in this problem. Since the science and society action plan was launched in 2001 – an initiative we are very proud of – we have not ceased highlighting the issue. This is a very important battle – such as enhancing the role of women in science – which, of course, we intend to continue. 

As regards co-operation with third countries, the Sixth Framework Programme goes beyond financing small, specific projects in a multitude of countries. This approach was too fragmented and offered no real guarantee of results. On the other hand, we are continuing to back more horizontal support measures – in the field of research on health, diet, the environment or researcher training, etc. – by trying to coordinate them at the level of large regions.

But a new and important feature is that Europe is offering its third country partners – and, until this year, the new Member States were still outside the Union – the opportunity to benefit in full from Community support by participating in European projects. This opening up of our programmes is a very valuable opportunity. If a Chilean, Algerian or Philippine university or laboratory has in-depth scientific experience in a given field, we can finance its integration into a Network of Excellence project on exactly the same basis as a Union Member State. This is a genuinely stimulating and egalitarian concept of co-operation that we believe is much more profitable for our partners – and also for the Union. 

As regards the new Member States, it should be stressed that their research potential must not only be exploited and increased through participation in the Framework Programme but also as a result of a global approach to their integration in the Union. In this respect, all European policies that concern the redeployment of this potential must be mobilised, especially in the framework of the European Structural Funds.  



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