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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 46 - August 2005    
 Facts, figures and future prospects
 Five-yearly assessment: interview with Erkki Ormala
 The boundaries of surveillance
 Biometrics and justice
 School and equality
 A week with the stars

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Europe: stagnating research?

Europe: stagnating research?
This summer, the Commission released the 2005 Key figures on science, innovation and technology in Europe. The stagnation diagnosis gives particular cause for concern and compromises the Lisbon Strategy to increase the EU’s R&D effort from 1.9% to 3% of GDP. Between 2002 and 2003, the level remained virtually at a standstill, with just a 0.2% increase being recorded. In addition to the usual comparisons with the United States and Japan, the 2005 Key figures confirm the significant difference when compared with the growing strength of China. Although its ‘R&D intensity’ is clearly lower – 1.31% of its GDP in 2003 – it is growing at the rate of 10% a year.

Much of the reason for the stagnation lies in a slowing of research investments by European companies, with a tendency over recent years to ‘delocate’ their expenditure in this field. The global deficit in EU-USA financial flows linked to R&D increased from €300 million to €2 billion between 1997 and 2002.

If Europe continues to lose its attractiveness for research activities in this way, “the EU will miss its chance of positioning itself as a leading player in the world’s knowledge economy,” warned Commissioner Janez Potočnik, responsible for science and research, in his comments on these latest figures. 

Science, technology, ethics: the Eurobarometer surveys

Two Eurobarometer surveys were published in June: Europeans, Science and Technology and Social values, Science and Technology. A special issue of RTD info will be devoted to them in the near future. The two surveys reveal the complex and sometimes contradictory or mixed feelings of citizens about the close yet also distant world of science and technology. The major progress made is certainly appreciated, especially in the field of medicine, with 87% believing that science has improved their quality of life and 77% believing that this will continue. Research in Europe is also considered favourably. Co-operative research by teams from different countries is viewed very positively by 71% of those interviewed, 59% believing that this will become increasingly important and 64% that the EU’s research budget should be increased. This sends a useful signal at a time when the EU is struggling to set its financial goals. 

There are also many technologies about which people have their doubts, however, such as GMOs, cloning and also the information technologies that are accused of eroding jobs. Those questioned believe these should be the subject of public debate and that clear ethical boundaries should be defined, especially as they do not always understand clearly the roles played by the various parties – politicians, researchers, industrialists, etc. They also believe that little account is taken of requests for information, except in the Northern European countries. Citizens conferences (see ‘Meeting of Minds’) and other debates of this kind are seen as being too rare despite the fact that such events, if carefully prepared, are known to shed light on scientific questions that are important to people in their day-to-day lives. The belief is also that these debates must have a real impact and that decision-makers should take note of the opinions and concerns expressed. Michel Claessens, who coordinated these two Eurobarometers at the Commission, believes that “even if these data are subject to all the imperfections inherent in opinion polls, the trends they express are sufficiently strong to encourage reflection and incite action”.

Nominations to the European Research Council

In the proposals for the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (2007-2013), the Commission gave considerable space to the plan to create a European Research Council (ERC). This new autonomous unit, to be financed by the EU, would be charged with supporting ‘frontier research’ activities in various fields of science and technology. The subject of discussion over the past two years, this idea has received broad support in scientific and political circles. The 22 founding members of the ERC Scientific Governing Council were selected last July by a broad panel of scientists chaired by Lord Patten of Barnes, chancellor of the Universities of Oxford and Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK). The members are as follows: 

Claudio Bordignon (IT), Manuel Castells (ES), Paul J. Crutzen (NL), Mathias Dewatripont (BE), Daniel Esteve (FR), Pavel Exner (CZ), Hans-Joachim Freund (DE), Wendy Hall (UK), Carl-Henrik Heldin (SE), Fotis C. Kafatos (GR), Michal Kleiber (PL), Norbert Kroo (HU), Maria Teresa V.T. Lago (PT), Oscar Marin Parra (ES), Robert May (UK), Helga Nowotny (AT), Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (DE), Leena Peltonen-Palotie (FI), Alain Peyraube (FR), Jens R. Rostrup-Nielsen (DK), Salvatore Settis (IT), and Rolf M. Zinkernagel (CH).

‘Meeting of Minds’

‘Meeting of Minds’
The brain and how to explore and treat it, the social, ethical and legal aspects of the neurosciences, and continuing progress in brain research are among the topics covered by the ‘Meeting of Minds’ conference that began in Brussels in June 2005 with a debate between 123 citizens from nine European countries. Experts first presented them with six case studies illustrating the principal brain disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, etc.) as well as the social issues raised by developments in the neurosciences, neurotechnologies and cognitive sciences (private life, free will, medicalisation, identity, etc.). At the conclusion of these two days of debate (translated into eight languages), participants noted the subjects they wanted to explore further within their national group. These were ethical control, the difference between normality and diversity, public information, economic interests in research, and equal access to treatment. These subjects will now be discussed at the second Meeting of Minds session, from 20 to 23 January 2006. Following a joint evaluation, this final meeting will culminate in the drafting of a European Citizens’ Convention with the aim of formulating recommendations to be submitted to Commissioner Janez Potočnick.

Meeting of Minds is the first European public deliberation on brain research. Supported by the EU, the initiative was launched by the King Baudouin Foundation (BE) in association with 12 partners (academic institutions, science museums, technology evaluation bodies, etc.) with experience both of this particular subject and of organising polyglot citizens’ debates of this kind that are open to a wide public.  

AthenaWeb, the scientific film portal

AthenaWeb, the scientific film portal
Most Europeans get their information from television – especially in the fields of science and research. Yet on many channels science programmes are very much the poor relation, despite the excellent films and documents in the European catalogue. The principal shortcoming is that these tend to remain largely unknown beyond national borders.

Launched in spring 2005, the AthenaWeb European initiative seeks to encourage the exchange of audio-visual material dedicated to scientific information. It offers producers, directors, documentarists and other sector professionals access to a video library where they can consult the most interesting resources and obtain details on how to use them. Technical and legal information (on copyright, purchasing possibilities, contractual solutions for the negotiation, sale or exchange of images, etc.) will be placed on-line at a later date. Users can also add to the resources by contributing their own information.

Currently at the pilot stage, AthenaWeb includes some 30 hours of programmes in the field of the environment and industrial technologies. This should soon be increased to 100 hours of scientific programmes, grouped into 14 subject areas.

Stay switched on for research…

Leave your computer running – not because you forget to turn it off, but to help researchers work on problems including Aids, Alzheimer’s and cancer. The aim is to harness the power of millions of PCs worldwide to permit super-powerful calculations. The project, known as World Community Grid, was launched by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and a number of universities and research centres in partnership with IBM. To participate in the WCG all you have to do is download a software program that will run on your computer when it is switched on but you are not actually using it.

Medical research projects supported in this way are selected by 17 international experts and the present subject of study is Human Proteome Folding which aims to identify the genetic structure of a number of proteins suspected of being pathogenic. This virtual chain permits considerable time-saving. In 2003, for example, the computer grid identified 44 possible treatments against smallpox in under three months. Using traditional methods, the research would have taken over a year.

Millennium Run

Stay switched on for research…
The upper pictures reveal a global simulation of the distribution of galaxies inthe Universe with, on the right, a more detailed view of a ‘cluster’ in which theyare shown individually. These pictures show the distribution of light whereas the lower pictures give the distribution of dark matter.
This is the somewhat Olympian name given to an ambitious project for astrophysical simulation that involves ‘recreating’ the Universe, revealing how the primeval peace was transformed under the influence of gravity, examining the millions of galaxies and black holes that developed during a given period, and seeking to understand a little more about the nature of dark matter. The European consortium Virgo, organised by the Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics in Garching (DE), spent five years retracing the journey lasting some 2 billion light years of around 10 billion particles of matter through a precise region of the Universe. Millennium Run aims to synthesise the results of observations made by microwave-sensitive telescopes that are able to provide us with a quite precise picture of our cosmos 400 000 years ago. The operation was made possible thanks to the tireless efforts of the Garching Centre’s super computer for an entire month. But this is only the beginning and further measurement campaigns are already planned. Simon White, Virgo director in Germany, regards the Millennium as an unprecedented tool that can be used to increase our understanding of the origins and nature of the Universe. “Our most important challenge is to provide astronomers worldwide with access to this tool so that they can enter their own modelling on the formation of galaxies and quasars and thereby interpret the results of their own observations.”

Digital Europe

There are about 40 million high-speed internet lines in the EU today, 70% more than a year ago. In response to the boom, the Commission has presented its "i2010" strategy (European information society 2010) to stimulate European economic dynamism in this sector. To do so, it is necessary to “provide the European digital economy with a coherent regulatory framework, based on the market, flexibility and durability,” explains Viviane Reding, European Commissioner responsible for the Information Society and the Media. Specific research on the ICTs, especially in the sphere of nanoelectrics, will be financed to the tune of €1.8 billion under the Seventh Framework Programme. 

ITER yens

The ITER experimental nuclear fusion reactor – which could one day provide our planet with an unlimited supply of clean energy comparable to that of the stars – is to be based in Europe. The French site at Cadarache was finally preferred to that of Rokkasho-Mura, in northern Japan. But though Tokyo bowed to the European preference, its partners are not leaving it empty-handed. 20% of the reactor’s industrial contracts and 20% of the permanent posts (researchers, technicians, administrators) will be Japanese, and Europe has pledged to support Japan’s candidacy for the post of director general. Japan will benefit from an additional research programme of around €700 million, half of it being financed by the EU. 

Universities at the heart of knowledge

Oxford University (UK) © Nasir Hamid
Oxford University (UK)
© Nasir Hamid
Are European universities equipped to face an increasingly competitive environment and the new context of global research? A Forum of high-level experts has been charged by the Commission(1) with identifying specific ways of providing a better response to present needs. Needs that are all the more vital as the erosion of budgets is forcing universities to conclude more external contracts, with the effect of partially distracting them from their central mission as places of teaching, long-term vision and fundamental research.

The group’s initial analyses are laid down in the European Universities: Enhancing Europe’s Research Base report (downloadable from the Internet). Four chapters cover the creation of knowledge, the exchange of knowledge, trans-disciplinarity and governance. Also included are concrete proposals on creating the conditions favourable for a revitalising of universities while respecting the identity of the individual institution. The aim is to confront the decision-makers with the reality of their future – including the Commission, in particular through its new Framework Programme for Research. 

(1) This Forum follows a Commission Communication entitled The Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge (2004) and the conference The Europe of Knowledge 2020: a vision for University-Based Research and Innovation, held in Liège (BE) the same year.

Languages at a click 

The European Union now has 21 official languages, including Gaelic since 13 June. Citizens may use any one of these languages in their contacts with the administration and when consulting the EU’s official documents. There are some who point out that the United Nations, which has eight times as many members as the EU, only confers the status of official language on a quarter of those spoken by its member nations. To find out more about multilingualism visit the polyglot site.

Thoughts of a man of experience

Former European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, the architect of the European Research Area, has just completed a critical reflection on the future of knowledge Europe. Published by the Belgian publisher Luc Pire and co-authored with the journalist François Louis, the work is entitled Le déclin de l'empire scientifique européen (Decline of the European scientific empire). Under this rather provocative title, the work offers a realistic assessment by an MEP who has rendered great services to the Union; a man who remains optimistic.  

Xplora, the new science education portal

Xplora, the new science education portal
Xplora is a new website devoted to providing information and increasing awareness that hopes to convince any remaining doubters that science is fascinating and fun. It provides access to ‘all you ever wanted to know about’ sciences and how to teach, discuss and enjoy them. It is aimed at primary and secondary school teachers and pupils as well as researchers, journalists and anybody else interested in these fields.

The portal is a gateway to, in particular:
  • Megalab which presents innovative projects and teaching methods;
  • a database of digital learning resources; 
  • on-line debates and a ‘news’ section;
  • free software programs for science education; and 
  • tools with which to set up on-line communities.
Supported by the EU and sponsored by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot and the artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweill, Xplora is the result of efforts by the partners in the Pencil project, a group of European experts inspired by new ways of teaching science. It is managed by European Schoolnet, a network of 28 education ministries. Most of the information is available in three languages (English, French, German).

To find out more