Important legal notice
Contact   |   Search   
RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 43 - November 2004   
 Goodbye, Mr Busquin
 Reducing congestion on the inflammation highways
 Childhood diets
 Strengthening European research
 Neighbourhood science 
 A growing concern
 Capturing distant worlds on film

Download pdf de en fr
IN BRIEF Printable version

Gazing into the future of science and society

There is a need to open scientific culture up to a broad public, with citizens involved in the democratic debate on the choices science presents and the ethical issues it raises. At the same time, more young people need to be encouraged to embark on research careers – especially women, since they remain under-represented in the scientific community.  

These are just some of the components of the ‘Science and Society’ issue, a field in which the European Union has been seeking to make a valuable contribution for a number of years now. Achieving the Lisbon objective of a Europe that is a dynamic and globally competitive knowledge-based economy will largely depend on the strength of its research and the acquisition of knowledge. It is an effort that needs a broad consensus in society, one that is understood, accepted and supported by a large majority of citizens in the enlarged Union. 

To highlight these aspects, between 9 and 11 March 2005, the European Commission will be holding, in Brussels (BE), the European Forum on Science and Society. This gathering will be open to decision-makers, researchers, civil society groups, and other stakeholders. The main aim of the meeting is to take stock of the many European and national actions launched since the Science and Society Action Plan was first unveiled in 2001. 

A large number of subjects will be discussed, with the European Research Area never far from people’s minds. Relationships between science and democracy, scientific communication and popularisation, safeguarding diversity and non-discrimination in the field of research are just some examples of the topics on the agenda. There will also be interactive contributions from a number of parallel national events. Finally, at the event’s many stands, European initiatives will be able to present their approach to research and experimentation.

This exceptional meeting, in terms of scale and breadth, will culminate with the proclamation of a charter entitled ‘Science and Society for the Future’.

Instruments of debate

Halfway through the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), in June, the panel of experts responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the new instruments – the Integrated Projects and Networks of Excellence – submitted their Marimon report, named after their chairman. This document is currently the focus of a certain amount of controversy.   

The experts acknowledge the utility and validity of these new instruments, which aim to achieve critical masses of expertise and excellence within the European Research Area, and recommend that they should be continued under the next Framework Programme (FP7). However, the Marimon group also sets out a number of constructive recommendations that reflect a certain disappointment and incomprehension within the research community. 

The experts consider there to be insufficient clarity in defining the goals of the calls for proposals for Integrated Projects and/or Networks of Excellence. They express concern at the genuine misunderstanding that the criterion for the new instruments is a question of size. They also wonder about the validity of the criterion of "lasting integration" that is supposed to govern the creation of Networks of Excellence. Finally, they fear that the new instruments have, in practice, served to reduce the role of traditional research projects based on more targeted themes and more limited consortiums that are better suited to many players, such as SMEs and ‘emerging’ participants, in particular in the new Member States.

But their most controversial remark is that, when issuing calls for proposals, the Commission should simply specify the strategic objectives, indicating the range of instruments available. The candidate participants could then announce their own specific research goals and their preference for a particular instrument that they consider is best suited to their choice.

In a communication at the end of August, the Commission sought to reply to the Marimon group’s findings. Although it accepts – with certain qualifications – several of the criticisms regarding the necessary clarification of the goals of the new instruments when launching calls for proposals, it contests the last of the above points. It believes that such an idea would call into question the fundamental principle of the work programmes, which are implemented with independent consultation bodies and which have always been at the heart of the Union's Framework Programmes. Allowing participants to choose their specific research goals on the basis of general strategic objectives would result in a dispersion of the resources and effectiveness of European support over an unmanageable range of subjects. As to allowing participants to choose the instrument from which they would like to benefit, that would render impossible any arbitration between the proposals.

The differences of opinion between the Commission and the authors of the Marimon report were on the agenda at the Competitiveness Council at the end of September 2004. The ministers took the view that it was a debate that should be pursued in the framework of the in-depth discussions on preparations for FP7, which should begin before the end of the year. To be continued… 

Young scientists, the class of 2004

The 2004 winners. From left to right: Martin Knöbel and Florian Grössbacher (AT), Charlotte Strandkvist (DK), Gerhard Schöny (AT) and Mario Chemnitz (DE).
The 2004 winners. From left to right: Martin Knöbel and Florian Grössbacher (AT), Charlotte Strandkvist (DK), Gerhard Schöny (AT) and Mario Chemnitz (DE).
This year’s Young Scientists Contest, the 16th, came to Dublin (IE) in late September. For four days, the Irish capital played host to the 73 finalists, aged between 15 and 20, from 34 European countries plus China and the United States. These young researchers were the winning competitors in their respective national competitions. Nine of them went home with one of th €28 500-worth of prizes. There were also various honorary prizes in the form of all expenses-paid visits to major European research centres – CERN, ESA, ESO, etc.

The three first prizes (of €5 000 each) went to young scientists from Austria, Denmark and Germany. The Austrians Martin Knöbel, 20, and Gerhard Schöny and Florian Grössbacher, both 19, designed and built the first automated self-tuning device for condenser microphone membranes. This system, which requires no manual adjustment, should make it possible to reduce vibrations and, thereby, cut production time and costs.

Charlotte Strandkvist (DK), 18, worked alone. Her ambition is to be a chemical engineer or teacher. Her project is designed to improve the method for synthesising N-methyl fluoxetine in the laboratory – in other words, an original method of synthesising antidepressant drugs. Mario Chemnitz (DE), 17, developed an ultrasonic detector for gas chromatography. This method is highly sensitive and also cheap compared with traditional detectors. 

Erasmus Mundus – a wealth of new opportunities

Erasmus Mundus is now up and running. This new and very appropriately named programme is destined, in the words of outgoing Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding, to “restore Europe to a leadership position on the international university scene”. It is aimed at all European institutes of higher education, as well as non-European students from every continent. With a budget of €230 million, Erasmus Mundus will be implementing four concrete actions:

  • the creation of a high-quality masters course, proposed jointly by at least three higher education establishments in different European countries  
  • the introduction of grants enabling top-level graduate students from third countries to take this specific training 
  • the possible creation of partnerships between the institutions participating in the programme and other higher educational establishments in third countries 
  • support for complementary actions likely to increase interest in and the visibility and attractiveness of these courses (especially in terms of mutual recognition of diplomas) 

Nineteen masters courses started up for the 2004 autumn term, involving 82 European countries in 17 countries. One hundred and forty students and 42 academics were awarded grants to study in Europe for up to two years. 

Note: Erasmus Mundus is not in any way a substitute for the ‘classic’ Erasmus programme that enables students to undertake part of their studies in another country.

Preparing the ground for more security research

Last September, the Commission confirmed the next steps in the launch, in 2007, of the future European research programme on security, which will be an integral part of the Seventh Framework Programme. By the end of this year, an advisory committee consisting of experts from the user groups, companies and research organisations will begin to advise the EU on the choices and means of implementation. This major five-year programme will be allocated a budget of around €1 billion. 

Earlier this year, the Commission launched a three-year ‘preparatory action’ in the field of security research. The first call for proposals (budget: €15 million) closed on 23 June 2004 and more than 170 eligible proposals were submitted. The participants include many companies in the aerospace, information and communication technologies, systems integration and defence sectors. Twelve projects will be launched by mid-December in fields such as situation perception, protection of networks, protection against terrorism, crisis management and the interoperability of control and communication systems. Two other calls for proposals will be published at the beginning of 2005 and 2006, each with a budget of €25 million.

The world’s rendezvous with space

Logo earth and space
On 16 February 2005, the European Union will be welcoming representatives from around 50 countries and 30 international or non-governmental organisations to the Third Earth Observation Summit in Brussels (BE). This comes on the heels of two earlier summits held in Washington (July 2003) and Tokyo (April 2004). The increased frequency of these gatherings reflects the degree to which the subject has become a global scientific priority.

More than 50 observation satellites are today circling the globe to observe its environment. These unique tools are proving increasingly valuable in monitoring climate change, meteorology, controlling sea and land pollution, as well as managing urban, rural or forest areas, etc. These environmental services are often inseparable from other, more social services that are now also managed from space, such as humanitarian aid following a natural disaster or conflict and transport management.

But this expanding network of satellites – connected to thousands of ground-based observation and measurement systems – suffers from a major handicap that prevents it from realising its full potential: the almost total lack of interconnection between the various observation devices.

It was to rectify this shortcoming that the Earth Observation Group (EOG) was set up at the international level in 2003. The goal of this broad political and scientific consortium is to deploy the new architecture of a ‘system of systems’ (GEOSS), making it possible to build bridges between present and future Earth observation devices. The Brussels Summit in February 2005 will be a major meeting enabling participants to endorse the 10-year GEOSS implementation plan.

Taking advantage of its status as summit host, the EU has decided to lend added impact to the event by having it coincide with the Earth and Space Week that runs from 12 to 20 February and should attract a wide public from Europe and abroad. The main attraction will be a major exhibition illustrating the fascinating knowledge and applications opened up by satellites in observing our planet. On 17 and 18 February, there will also be two international days on co-operation in space.

Watch out too for the ’Earth and Space’ dossier that will be featured in next month’s issue of RTD info.

An improbable breath of fresh air 

Logo annals of improbable research
"Improbable research makes people laugh, and then makes them think." That is the slogan of the very original magazine Air (The Annals of Improbable Research ), whose most valuable pearls of wisdom can also be appreciated in Italian, German and Chinese. Under the guiding hand of Marc Abrahams (Harvard University), the aim of the team of mischievous scientists and journalists is to awaken an interest in science by asking two good questions: 1) What is important and what isn’t? 2) What is real and what isn’t? They are constantly on the lookout, and in all the sciences, for the improbable, the useless, the incongruous, and the nonsensical – and at times the poetic. 

The Air team are also the originators of the Ig-Nobels (a word play on ignoble). Honouring authentic scientists who are authors of authentic studies, these prizes cover more fields than their Swedish namesake, most notably mathematics, psychology and ‘interdisciplinarity’. The awards ceremony is held in the United States and is attended not just by the winners, who are systematically invited, but also genuine Nobel prizewinners who enter into the spirit. Following last year’s event, some of the Ig-Nobels embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The ceremony is held during National Science Week and is sponsored by the very serious British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) and the Times Higher Education Supplement

So who gets the prizes? The 2004 Ig-Nobels, announced on 30 September, included awards for the following: 

Medicine: The effect of country music on suicide

Public health: Investigating the scientific validity of the ‘five-second’ rule (considering whether it is safe to eat food that has been dropped on the floor or if it has had time to be contaminated)

Physics: Coordination modes in the multisegmental dynamics of hula hooping

European Research Council garners more support

The proposal to create a European Research Council (ERC) is receiving more backing all the time. The most recent was from the 52 European scientific organisations that have signed the petition drawn up and published by the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE). Headed by José Mariano Gago, a scientist and politician who was one of the architects of the Lisbon Strategy, the ISE followed up this action by organising, in Paris (FR) last October, a conference on the subject of the future ERC, with the aim of stimulating debate and action. 

Incubating future Nobel laureates

Incubating future Nobel laureates
"It is often scientists just starting out on their careers who formulate new concepts that later overturn accepted scientific paradigms, sometimes subsequently being honoured with a Nobel Prize. To support creativity and the progress of knowledge, it is important to recognise up-and-coming generations of scientists by granting them the necessary means to ensure the necessary independence to pursue their own ideas,” believes Bertil Anderson, executive director of the European Science Foundation (ESF) and member of the Nobel Committee. 

That is the idea – generous in monetary terms – behind the launch of the new European Young Investigator Awards (EURYI), inaugurated this year by the ESF and the association of European Research Councils (EUROHORCs). Last year’s call for proposals elicited 800 responses, 130 of which went on to the preselection stage. At the end of August 2004, at the Euroscience Forum in Stockholm, 25 research awards were granted, ranging from €1 to €1.25 million. Such prizes, although not by nature comparable to a Nobel Prize, are important in a different respect. These personalised budgets enable young researchers working at European scientific organisations to pursue original lines of research and to set up their own research teams. 

A fundamental innovation is that EURYI represents the first pooling of resources of national organisations for the funding of a joint project.   

A plea for the social sciences

Founded in 1998 and with some 2 000 members (including 38 Nobel laureates), the Academia Europaea aims to harness efforts to develop and promote the social sciences at European level. It has just launched an appeal to research policy-makers for these disciplines to be taken into account when giving practical shape to the European Research Area. The social sciences are increasingly treated as the poor relations when allocating budgets and suffer from a lack of interest on the part of the various players (research officials, policy-makers and economic decision-makers). In many people’s minds, society’s progress is often linked to progress in the so-called exact sciences. Yet the social sciences are essential for understanding both one’s own socio-cultural environment and that of others, and is a useful tool of analysis at a time when Europe is enlarging and needs strengthened integration. This is one of the reasons why the association is strongly urging the future European Research Council to promote and support the social sciences to the same degree as the exact sciences. 

The European dream

A nonconformist who defies categorisation, the socio-economist Jeremy Rifkin already sparked some lively discussions, as well as some sharp criticism, with his earlier works, especially The End of Work (1995). More recently, the controversial Rifkin took a surprisingly stimulating and positive look at economic changes and their relationship to the world of technosciences with his constructive book entitled The Hydrogen Economy, published in 2002.

His latest book – The European Dream – How Europe's Vision of the Future is quietly eclipsing the American Dream – has just been published. Taking issue with the US export model and its devotees, as well as analysts who mock ‘Old World’ models that have apparently had their day, Rifkin advocates a contemporary European vision. He sees this as better suited to the challenges of a globalised world than a kind of American addiction to the past based on a shortsighted vision in which there is seen to be no limit to the accumulation of wealth or the availability of the planet’s resources. He believes that the values defended by Europe – sustainable development, cultural diversity, quality of life, human rights – are both realistic and effective, constituting the ingredients of the “social cement on which the global world is being built”.

Taking the pulse of teaching

Taking the pulse of teaching
Eurydice, the Commission-backed network, provides the educators with regular news on the programmes and policies that concern them and often takes the temperature of the teaching world. One of the network’s recent publications is Keeping teaching attractive in the 21st century , the final volume of a four-part study that also covers teacher training, teacher supply and demand, working conditions and salaries. This in-depth look at the profession shows that most European teachers are fairly satisfied with their work, although they bemoan the increased workload and the seemingly low regard in which their profession is held (an impression that is not borne out by various opinion polls).

This relative satisfaction is not, however, serving to attract newcomers to the profession and one of the most serious problems facing the sector, virtually throughout Europe, is the ageing of teaching staff and the lack of motivation among experienced teachers. To improve the situation, new initiatives are being launched in an attempt to tackle the problem at both ends of the age spectrum. In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, non-traditional training courses are being made available to individuals unable to follow the traditional teacher training programmes. For older teachers in many countries, a lightening of the workload at the end of their careers should help limit the numbers lining up for early retirement.

CERN celebrates its golden jubilee

In October 2004, CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) celebrated half a century of existence. On both sides of the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, the lighting of the 50th candle was symbolised by a spectacular illumination of the 27-kilometre ring of the Large Haldron Collider accelerator.

The name of this prestigious scientific organisation is perhaps rather misleading. Its specialist field is admittedly ‘nuclear’ in the widest sense of the term, but not in the sense associated with energy production. Since the very beginning, it has been at the service of particle physics, for which it is today recognised as being the largest and most prestigious laboratory in the world. Through the five decades of its existence, CERN has been engaged in developing and acquiring the very best and the very rarest of experimentation tools, making it today a genuine ‘multinational platform’ for fundamental physics. It is home to around 6 000 resident or visiting researchers of all nationalities and every generation, from senior Nobel prizewinners to young and promising PhD students. It is engaged in an ever deeper penetration of the mysteries of the infinitely small components of matter and the forces of interaction that govern them. An investigation that, paradoxically, is gradually permitting progress in answering some of the big questions about the mysteries of the origins and destiny of the Universe as a whole.   

The ERN jubilee is of rich symbolic value to Europe. The founding of this institution – the idea was launched in 1949 – was the very first pioneering experience of a joint enterprise by 32 European countries. In this respect, it was a testing laboratory in which the spark of the concrete desire to create a unified Europe was already apparent. Another reason for its symbolic importance is that it incorporated a visionary dimension of a priority that today, 50 years later, is so very pertinent:  the need to create a European Research Area based on the optimising of excellence.

In July 1974, work was completed on a tunnel with a circumference of 7km, straddling the Franco-Swiss border at a depth of 40 metres. This was the first cross-border accelerator, the SPS (Super Proton Synchtron), equipped with what was at the time a futuristic computer control system. The construction of the LEP (Electron-Positron Collider), an underground ring with a circumference of 27 km, again between France and Switzerland, was, in the 1980s, the biggest European construction site before work began on the Channel tunnel. The present LHC site: transporting the heavy, long and fragile superconductor magnets. Replacing the LEP, the LHC will enter into service at the beginning of 2007. It will be the most powerful and sophisticated accelerator ever built. The United States is a partner in the project.
In July 1974, work was completed on a tunnel with a circumference of 7 km, straddling the Franco-Swiss border at a depth of 40 metres. This was the first cross-border accelerator, the SPS (Super Proton Synchtron), equipped with what was at the time a futuristic computer control system.The construction of the LEP (Large Electron-Positron Collider), an underground ring with a circumference of 27 km, again between France and Switzerland, was, in the 1980s, the biggest European construction site before work began on the Channel Tunnel.The present LHC site: transporting the heavy, long and fragile superconductor magnets. Replacing the LEP, the LHC will enter into service at the beginning of 2007. It will be the most powerful and sophisticated accelerator ever built. The United States is a partner in the project.