Important legal notice
Contact   |   Search   
RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 47 - January 2006   
 Living with influenza
 The unexplored territory of low-dose radiation
 The strategy of coexistence
 The reality in the field
 Ordering the chaos of life
 A look at what the elderly eat
 Jean Audouze and the paths of good fortune
 The little prince of R&D

Download pdf de en fr
IN BRIEF Printable version

2005: a climatic turning point?

Satellite surveillance of the ozone layer. © ESA
Satellite surveillance of the ozone layer.
2005 marks a turning point in the global fight against climate warming, being the year when the international community as a whole revealed its concern based on the scientific evidence. At the beginning of December, the first United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Montreal (CA), a historic event lasting two full weeks and attended by almost 10 000 delegates from all sectors of society, including governments, industry, science and technology, and social and environmental NGOs.

On the agenda at this major meeting was the rendering operational of the famous Kyoto Protocol which, after eights years of prevarication, finally entered into force in February this year. Of the 157 signatory nations, about 30 industrialised countries legally undertook to meet concrete targets in reducing their greenhouse gases between 2008 and 2012.  

For its part, the European Union – a fervent advocate of the need to combat climate warming – decided to strengthen its own climate policy. The foundations were laid in February with a Commission Communication entitled ‘Winning the battle against climate change’ in which it sets out European strategy for the ‘post-2012’ or ‘post-Kyoto’ period.

During the 20th century, the planet recorded a temperature rise of around 0.6°C and Europe of 0.9°C. Forecasters indicate an accelerated rise of between 1.4°C and 6°C by 2100. It is thus no longer a question of avoiding global warming but of limiting it, for which the symbolic value adopted is known as ‘Objective 2°C’. Translated into terms of emissions – with greenhouse gas concentrations in the global atmosphere at their highest for half a million years and growing at the rate of 0.5% per year – this means taking some immediate and drastic measures.

This is precisely the objective of the latest phase of the European Climate Change Programme (ECCP-II), launched in October 2005 on the occasion of the stakeholder conference attended by representatives from industry (aviation, automobile, energy), politics, research and environmental NGOs. Building on the 40 or so measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already promoted in 2000 by ECCP-I – which succeeded in reducing European emissions by 350 megatons – ECCP-II is much more ambitious and precise in implementing the Kyoto goals, which include an 8% reduction in European greenhouse gas emissions against the 1990 reference year. “If present measures remain in place, the EU should be able to reduce emissions to 4.4% below the 1990 level. This is good, but not good enough. A more sustained effort is clearly needed,” explained European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas on presenting the programme. ECCP-II focuses in particular on carbon dioxide trapping and storage, adaptation to climate change, and measures in the field of transport and energy. 

The WWF scenarios

The active involvement of the NGOs – in particular Greenpeace and the WWF – in the ECCP-II debates is worthy of mention as it reflects a real desire to listen to and engage in constructive discussion on the part of environmental campaigners, policy-makers and industry. The document Freezing Climate Change – drawn up by the WWF in co-operation with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy – sets out ambitious measures and policies designed to help the EU reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2020. They involve a drastic cut in general energy consumption coupled with increased energy efficiency while, at the same time, allocating 25% of the market to sustainable sources. The study presents two scenarios for the 1990-2020 period: ‘business-as-usual’ (no real departure from existing policy) and ‘target 2020’ (genuine ad hoc measures). The differences, on paper at least, are evident. Scenario 1: energy demand rising by between 0.8% and 1.4% a year between 2000 and 2020 with renewable energy consumption reaching 9.3% (172 million tonnes of oil equivalent) in 2020. Scenario 2: energy demand decreasing by 0.4% and renewable energies rising to 402 million tonnes – 61% of which would be converted into heating and electricity. This latter scenario would also produce a 33% global cut in emissions, mainly due to changes in the agriculture sector (using biogas in particular) and waste reduction. 

Education: looking brighter on the S&T front

Cover "Key Data on Education in Europe 2005"
The Eurydice network(1) regularly takes the temperature of European education. Its most global study, Key Data on Education in Europe 2005, analyses six major themes – context, organisation, participation in education, resources, educational processes, graduates, levels of qualification – and presents 153 indicators. The study is based on data collected by the network itself plus Eurostat statistics and the results of other international surveys, such as Pisa(2).

The results provide grounds for optimism, with 16 million students currently registered in higher education in the EU-25 and their numbers growing at the rate of 2% a year between 1998 and 2002. Most countries operate some kind of a selection system for university places, after graduation from secondary school. There is also an increase in the number of students with a qualification in a science or technology subject. While social science graduates represent 25% of the class of 2002, an increase in the pure sciences was also recorded between 1988 and 2002, although they still represent fewer than 15% of total graduates. 

Most countries also make regular studies of the quality of their national education. The external and internal evaluation of establishments is general practice and a number of countries (CZ, NL, UK, PT, SE) systematically publish the increasingly standardised results. The organisation of education systems seems to be quite comparable in the new and old Member States, as is investment in education in terms of GDP. The ten new Member States have relatively more young people with a higher secondary education diploma and more students as a proportion of the population.  

The Eurydice study Key Data on Information and Communication Technology in Schools in Europe - 2004 finds a clear lack of equality when it comes to ICTs, with marked differences not only between the Member States but also between individual schools. On average, one computer is used by between five and 20 pupils in secondary schools, although in some countries this figure rises to 40 per computer (2000 figures). Nevertheless, the trend is for schools to become better equipped and internet access in particular is improving. 

In most EU countries, ICTs feature in the curriculum. In primary schools, they are a tool used in teaching other subjects, while at secondary level they are a subject in their own right and are usually taught by teachers with university training in this field. 

A question of transparency

A question of transparency
'Evidence-based medicine’ is an area of growing importance in establishing the bases for the art of healing. The expression refers to the many recommendations formulated by medical institutions and learned societies on good treatment practices. These are based on clinical trials and, most notably, specify the most appropriate treatment for a given pathology. Yet questions remain regarding the independence of the medical experts who draft these recommendations, in particular with regard to the pharmaceutical industry.

A survey by the British journal Nature looked at 215 recommendations for clinical practice, originating from all over the world and retrieved from a US database in 2004. Just 90 documents specified whether or not there was any possible conflict of interest between the authors of the recommendations and the manufacturers of the medicinal products in question. In 50% of cases, at least one of the authors was a consultant at the laboratory that produced the medical products, half of the experts had personally received a research grant, 43% of them had been remunerated for speaking at an event organised by the pharmaceutical company, and 11% held shares in it.

The link between national institutions and industry varies greatly from one country to another. In the United Kingdom, for example, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is completely financially independent of the pharmaceutical laboratories. The Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Produits de Santé (Afssaps), on the other hand, finances a part of its budget by carrying out studies for laboratories. 

Upra, a plant laboratory ‘without walls’

© Simon Hawkins/Inra
© Simon Hawkins/Inra
In Sweden, the Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) is a research leader in the field of forest genetics and physiology and is working in particular on the poplar, whose genome has just been decoded. In France, the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) is very familiar with Arabidopsis thaliana, this doyen of plants whose genome has been fully sequenced. The Swedes are working on applications in the field of forestry production and timber quality improvements, the French on the transmission of knowledge acquired to other cultivated species. It was the complementary nature of their enquiries that gave these two research centres the idea of creating a ‘European laboratory without walls’, with research focusing on the structure and evolution of genomes, plant growth processes, and ability to adapt to the environment, etc. In addition to the joint targeted research and the exchange of conventional knowledge, the two research institutes are also developing a common training programme. This enables young scientists to participate in exchange schemes at the partner institution, the two laboratories having recently combined their acronyms to form Upra.

Giving meaning to research evaluation

"What do you think of the EU’s ambition to become the world’s most competitive knowledge economy?” When put by an MEP to Bill Valdez – Director of Programming and Analyses at the US Energy Department’s Bureau of Science and guest of the European Parliament at the invitation of the ITRE Committee (Industry, Research and Energy) – the question elicited a surprising response: “The problem is that we do not know what is meant by the world’s most innovative economy, as the evaluation methods available to us at present do not answer this.”

Bill Valdez’s European visit was designed precisely to help strengthen transatlantic co-operation and the exchange of expertise as a means of correcting what he describes as a situation that is physically close to an ‘information vacuum’ when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of research and innovation policies. The biggest challenge is to adopt methods that permit sound comparisons. The United States is in the process of acquiring evaluation systems for research performance based on the so-called ‘system-level analysis’. This is a modular approach and permits ‘piece by piece’ evaluation to arrive at a global view of the performance of a country or group of countries. Bill Valdez, who would like US-EU co-operation in this field to feature in the Seventh Framework Programme, believes that the results obtained by this approach not only permit comparisons but are also a means of modelling system behaviour.

Mimicking photosynthesis?

The largest, the most limitless and the most immediately available of the Earth’s renewable energy resources is solar light. Yet it is vastly under-exploited. The reason is the lack of efficient and reasonably priced technologies with which to capture and convert it.

As reported by the magazine Science(3), a European research project on the process of chlorophyllous photosynthesis at work in the plant world has just proved the existence and nature of the ‘previously missing link’ in the Kok Cycle that enables plants to catalyse the splitting of water into molecular oxygen O2. The complex key to oxygen transformation in the plant world consists of five atoms – four manganese atoms and one calcium atom – which are known to be at the centre of the catalytic reaction. Previously, only four intermediate states had been demonstrated.         

It was at the European Synchroton Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble that Michael Haumann and Holger Dau, of the Free University of Berlin, were able to identify the fifth state on a sample of spinach. The use of synchroton light proved crucial to the process: “a very intense and stable X-ray beam is necessary to perform this study on such a highly diluted protein”, explains Pieter Glatzel, head of the ESRF beamline. “We measured the fluorescence of the sample that was emitted after excitation every ten microseconds by X-rays, which makes it possible to determine the transition between the different states.” 

By closely studying the kinetic reactions, German researchers observed a time delay before the molecular oxygen formation stage. This delay proves unequivocally the existence of this long sought after intermediate state. They also suggest an extension of the Kok Cycle with an additional intermediate, and propose a new molecular-based reaction mechanism for the release of dioxygene.

Michael Haumann believes that this "opens up new prospects that will have an impact on our understanding of photosynthesis. Through ‘technological mimesis’, these could also contribute to the efforts to produce solar cells that are more efficient for our needs.”

SSETI, the science student satellite

At various locations around the world, 250 students have pooled their efforts to set up the SSETI Express satellite, without ever meeting – a considerable feat of distance co-operation. © ESTA/SSETI Team
At various locations around the world, 250 students have pooled their efforts to set up the SSETI Express satellite, without ever meeting – a considerable feat of distance co-operation.
"There are 700 km to orbiting altitude. We have changed the batteries. There are two days left and we are getting nervous,” wrote Jörg, on 24 October 2005. “There is no longer anything we can do for it – our baby will soon be leaving the nest,” added Neil, on 26 October. The ‘baby’ in question is the Express, a satellite put together by students and launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome (Russia) on 27 October. Four days later, radio contact with SSETI was lost. Despite the sense of gloom, Neil Melville, Manager of this ESA-backed project, remained positive: “The aim of this mission was to instruct the students in all aspects of a space mission and we really did gain practical experience.”

It all began back in 2000 when ESA’s Education Department launched an appeal for students at various European universities to pool their skills in designing and building a ‘genuine’ satellite. With the help of experts, they produced the SSETI Express, a small space satellite measuring 60 x 60 x 70 cm. Prior to launch, the satellite underwent a series of tests to ensure it was up to the job, including vibration tests, heat tests under vacuum conditions, verification of electromagnetic compatibility, and tests in the clean room at the ESA space technology centre in the Netherlands. The satellite’s mission would be to test and characterise the propulsion system, send back pictures of the Earth and function as a radio transponder.

But despite SSETI’s silence, the project goes on, because SSETI was simply the pilot satellite for the future ESEO (European Student Earth Orbiter), a complex microsatellite weighing over 100 kg and packed with instruments. Due to be launched in 2007, this too is the result of co-operation between European universities. An Italian team built its electrical supply system, its on-board computer and camera come from Aalborg (DK), the cold gas propulsion sub-system was produced at Stuttgart University (DE), its twin S and UHF band communication systems are the fruit of dedicated efforts by radio buffs from the UK and Germany, and a Danish student produced the satellite’s magnetic system for altitude control and monitoring. The vital coordination between all these groups was made possible thanks to a dedicated information relay and weekly internet forums. International workshops were also held every six months at the ESTEC (NL) premises. “Even if we have no further contact with the SSETI Express, it has already been a very rewarding mission for all involved. One from which we will draw many useful lessons for ESEO,” stresses Roger Elaerts, Head of ESA’s Education Department. 

When R&D relocates

Relocation is not only affecting the production sector. Research and development are taking the same route. The consultants Booz Allen Hamilton carried out a survey among 250 European companies to identify the amounts and sites of their R&D investments. Whereas in 2006, 81.6% of budgets were allocated to Europe, this is set to fall to 68.5% in 2007. China, India and Central and Eastern Europe (both EU and non-EU countries, such as Hungary and Romania) are the principal beneficiaries – as well as the United States. Costs are not the only reason for exporting research, as a dynamic environment and new market opportunities also exert a considerable power of attraction. More and more companies are setting up local technological development centres and laboratories in countries at the forefront of research efforts, such as are found in Asia. They also like to set up R&D units in a high-tech environment (public laboratories, start-ups, etc.), of the kind found in Silicon Valley. In 2000, European companies already invested €15.2 billion in the US, compared with US investments of €11.5 billion in Europe and in the United Kingdom in particular.

The Solvay Physics Conference

From 1 to 4 December 2005, 60 of the world’s leading physicists were in Brussels for the 23rd Solvay Physics Conference. Since the first conference almost a century ago now, these events have been the starting point for many advances in contemporary physics. This year the scientists discussed the latest theories of the universe and the emergence, finally, of reconciliation between the theory of universal gravitation in Einstein’s model of general relativity and the laws of quantum mechanics. 

For the first time ever, the conference ended with a public session attended by an audience of 1 000 who came to listen to the brilliant and accessible lectures by Robbert Dijkgraaf (Amsterdam University, NL) and Brian Green (Columbia University, USA) on such major subjects as string theory, black holes, brane notions and the 4th spatial dimension. The public was also able to benefit from the knowledge of other conference experts at a question and answer session chaired by David Gross (Nobel Prize for Physics, 2004).  

(1) Set up in 1980 at the Commission’s initiative, and grouping the national units set up by education ministries, Eurydice is an institutional network charged with collecting, updating, analysing and disseminating reliable and comparable information on education policies and systems throughout Europe.
(2) Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD to access the knowledge of 15-year-olds. The first survey, conducted in 2000, covered 41 countries. The 2006 survey will cover 58 countries.
(3) Science, vol. 310 (1019-1021).