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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 What makes a man?
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Knowledge, a lever for growth

Janez Potočnik
"If we are to stand a chance of meeting the Lisbon objectives, determined action must be taken at European level to put knowledge at the heart of Europe’s policy for competitiveness.” This is why Janez Potočnik – a recognised expert in economic analysis and development and the new science and research Commissioner – wants to see “the launch of a ‘Knowledge for Growth Pact’ as part of the Commission’s proposals for reinvigorating this Lisbon strategy”. 

The aim is to stimulate the creation of knowledge through research, its diffusion through education and training, and its application through innovation. Such a pact would set a number of concrete priorities to which the Union and Member States would be committed. These priorities would include micro-economic progress targeted at clearly identified themes and the corresponding investment strategies. They would place the essential desire for competitiveness and the imperatives of environmental and social sustainability at the heart of the European model of society. Potočnik plans partly to achieve this through the potential role of technological platforms, both present and projected. The foundations of this pact will be discussed at the Luxembourg European summit in March 2005. 

Mobile financing for mobile researchers

Twelve European research councils, which have teamed up to form Eurohorcs, have just adopted a much-needed measure to promote the mobility of researchers. A major obstacle facing researchers seeking to pursue their work at an institution abroad is that this means they lose the funding they receive from their scientific institution of origin. Members of this association of research organisations have entered into an agreement whereby the researchers who transfer from one of the associated research organisations to another can take their grants with them. The promoters of this innovative scheme hope it will be extended to include other organisations and countries. 

Finns top of the class

Finns top of the class
Finnish teenagers have come top in the international “knowledge acquired by 15-year-olds” survey, carried out by Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) using data collected in 2003. This time the study focused on mathematics. Finnish school children were already among the best in the previous survey (2000) that centred on the comprehension of written texts – reading in the broadest sense of the term. Carried out under the auspices of the OECD, more than 250 000 pupils in 41 countries participate in the Pisa survey.

Runners-up in this year’s survey were Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. A particular focus of the tests was to assess in what way pupils were able to elaborate and apply mathematical models in accomplishing everyday tasks. In this respect, the Belgians, Koreans and Japanese coped best, successfully completing exercises equivalent to level 6, whereas in the United States, Italy and Portugal a quarter of pupils got no further than level 1.

But the survey is primarily of interest for the lessons that can be learned from the performances and the shortcomings. Standard of living, for example, is not necessarily a measure of success, even if most of the industrialised countries showed good results. 

Countries that spend most on their educational systems do not necessarily chalk up the best performances and it is Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic that seem to offer most ‘value for money’. Pupils from a culturally privileged background generally do better, but the differences are not felt everywhere in the same way and schools in some countries help correct any inequalities. The least fair countries seem to be Germany, Belgium, Hungary and the Slovak Republic.

Good results in terms of social origin also vary from one school to another, with broader equality in Canada, Northern Europe, Ireland and Poland. Differences among Polish schoolchildren have been reduced and performances improved since 2000 “thanks to the major reforms to the educational system in 1999”.

Key factors affecting performance are the quality of relations between students and teachers (and the latter’s commitment), “constructive disciplinary rules” and “a stress-free interest in mathematics”. This question of stress seems to affect girls more than boys in regard to maths, while the opposite was found to be true for reading in the previous survey. This ‘gender divide’ is a cause for concern “as it will be reflected in the studies and professions girls will tend towards in the future,” note the report authors. More generally, half of all pupils say that they are interested in what they learn in maths but just 38% say that they actually like maths. 

The score on European innovation

The score on European innovation
In the 2004 European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS), Finland and Sweden have consolidated their position as the most innovative EU countries, some of their indicators even topping US and Japanese levels. Germany and Denmark also show a good score compared with the European average, while the Netherlands, Ireland and France have all seen the rate of improvement in their performances slow from previous years. The ten new EU   Member States show encouraging performances – especially Estonia and Slovenia – from an inevitably weaker starting position. Their inclusion has brought down the average indicators of the EU’s capacity to innovate, although globally they show an upward trend over the past eight years.

The gap between the EU and the United States and Japan has widened further in the field of patents, the qualifications of researchers, and R&D expenditure. Among the most worrying indicators, those of the Scoreboard of industrial investments in R&D by Europe’s top 500 companies, based on 2003 figures, show sluggish performance, with a fall of 2% compared with the previous year.

The fall was particularly marked for 12 of the Eurotop countries. On the other hand, increased research expenditure was recorded in five high-tech sectors – automobile, pharmaceuticals, biotechnologies, information technologies and electrical equipment – representing two-thirds of industrial investments in R&D. Also of note is the geographical concentration of these investments in the countries where the companies have their headquarters. Three-quarters of EU industrial research effort is concentrated in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. 

Although in seven of the top ten investment sectors, the ‘top 500’ have an R&D/turnover ratio equivalent to US and Japanese levels, this indicator is much weaker at global level (all sectors combined): 3.2% in the EU and over 4% for the two major competitors. 

Two new technological platforms  

From animal to human
From animal to human
Animal health has medical, human health, economic and ethical implications. Supported by three of the Commission Directorate-Generals (Research, Health and Consumer Protection, and Development), the ‘Global animal health’ platform was launched in December 2004. It brings together a wide interdisciplinary scientific community, as well as the food, veterinary and biotechnology industries, stock breeders and regulatory authorities. They will seek to develop new tests and vaccines.

The factory of the future
In early December, the Commission lent its support to the creation of the Manu FUTURE platform, whose aim is to enable R&D initiatives targeted at progress in manufacturing processes in all fields of industry. 

EU-India: a knowledge partnership

EU-India: a knowledge partnership
This new partnership, signed at the end of 2004, is a ‘historic’ first between the Union and those emerging – and democratic – countries now playing a leading role on the world stage. This strengthening of political and commercial links between the EU and India also awards priority to scientific and technological co-operation. 

Nanoscience: the DNA ‘Velcro

A team of German scientists has succeeded in creating what it calls DNA ‘Velcro’. Previously, it had been possible to attach nanoparticles of gold to DNA fragments, a technique that made it possible to build functional nanostructures. Now researchers have found a way of separating them, a development that opens the door to introducing a new flexibility into the building blocks of nanotechnology and the hope of one day creating ‘self constructing’ materials. 

Medicine: the WHO priorities

Medicine: the WHO priorities
Priority Medicines for Europe and the World is a report published at the end of last year by the World Health Organisation on behalf of the EU. It is of considerable importance for future trends in the public health field at global level, as well as the research options of the next Framework Programme. The list of priority medicines in Europe and the rest of the world takes into account the ageing population of Europe, the growth of non-communicable diseases in developing countries, and diseases that persist despite the existence of effective treatment. It also shows the indifference of the laws of the market place to a number of disorders – particularly certain infectious diseases – for which there is clearly an insufficient care capacity at present.

Tuberculosis: advances in medicine

A team from Johnson & Johnson’s research centre (BE) has developed a molecule that inhibits Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the disease’s microbial agent. "The action mechanism of this agent is new and acts on tuberculosis strains whose resistance to a number of medicines has been verified,” explains project coordinator Andries Koen.

Peering into Europe’s nano future

From August to October 2004, the EU-backed Thematic Network Nanoforum carried out an on-line poll on the development of nanotechnologies. The survey delved into the impact of these emerging technologies, the situation in Europe compared with the rest of the world, questions of funding and infrastructures, and possible society and health concerns raised by their development. Seven hundred replies were received from members of the scientific community and business world, as well as journalists and other observers, in 32 countries.

Of the professionals consulted, 90% said they were expecting a major industrial impact within the coming decade and 80% believe that nanotechnologies will bring major changes to society. Three-quarters believe that Europe is lagging behind the United States in terms of scientific research and industrial applications.

They want to see a significant increase in the funding of interdisciplinary research and of European infrastructures in this sector and fear a lack of qualified human resources. Chemistry, materials, ICTs and medicine are named as essential fields for nanotech development. As regards concerns about the impact on health, the environment and security in general, the view is that risk assessment should be an inherent part of research from a very early stage. Particular stress was placed on communication and the need to inform the general public. Nearly nine-tenths of those polled favour the adoption of a “code of good conduct” in the context of a wide-ranging consultation with the developed and developing countries. 

Science and society: the big debate

The Science in Society Forum 2005 will be held from 9 to 11 March 2005 in Brussels. Organisers expect some 600 participants representing the world of science, politics and civil society. The themes for debate are: science, society and the Lisbon strategy; science, technology and democracy; the science communication culture; and public debates, participative procedures and the targeting of various social groups. 

There will also be a discussion of the independent mid-term evaluation of the Commission’s groundbreaking Science and Society Action Plan.

Research and innovation: talking shop

In co-operation with the European Commission, France will organise the first European Research and Innovation Salon in Paris from 3 to 5 June 2005. This ambitious initiative aims to offer the general public the widest possible view of the European research and innovation community, its most recent discoveries and inventions. This major gathering – which will bring together researchers, academics, engineers and entrepreneurs from both public and private spheres at the European and national level – will act as an important showcase. It will help to promote scientific and technical careers among young people by presenting the full range of career and recruitment opportunities. It will also give visibility to start-ups and to the work of young researchers, and will seek to inspire the development of partnerships.