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RDT info logoMagazine on European Research N° 51 - December 2006
 Man and machine: new communications
 E-inclusion, heads or tails
 Biotechnology: growing in popularity
 "A straight-talking scientist can create quite a stir"
 Diabetes + obesity = diabesity
 The history of the yeast genome
 Rebel with multiple causes
 On the trail of the sixties
 Nobel prize winners to be

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Women and science – figures and strategy

women scientists
© Shutterstock
The She Figures report (2nd edition, 2006) focuses on the professional situation of women scientists throughout the European Union. Drawing comparisons by gender enables the report to evaluate the persistence of discrimination. The first inquiry, conducted by the Women and Science unit of the Directorate-General for Research, was carried out three years ago.
In the sciences, female researchers remain in the minority (29% in the EU in 2003, compared with 27% in 1999), even though the number of women employed rose faster than their male counterparts (+4% for women, compared with +2.4% for men). “This represents an increase of some 140,000 researchers in the period, of which 39% were women,” remarks Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research. “While this indicates a continued positive trend overall, we should not forget that women remain underrepresented in science, especially in positions of responsibility.” In the academic sector, for example, only 15% of those at the highest grade are women. Moreover, only 18% of researchers in the private sector are women, while only 5.8% of senior posts in engineering and technology are held by women. The report is supported by charts showing the comparisons, although its authors acknowledge the limits of the statistics, as well as the heterogeneous nature of the data that they encountered. Nevertheless, they view their work as a vital tool in conceiving policies to counter the “gender imbalance”.
This data will certainly interest the members of the European Platform of Women Scientists, which was launched in March this year. This ‘network of networks’ aims to support the work of women scientists and bring together the many diverse organisations that currently operate at national, European or international levels. The aim is to help them become effective players in debates on the role of equal opportunities in research policies (wage gaps, the restriction of women to minor roles, the difficulties of progressing a career and taking on positions of responsibility, etc.). The first meeting of this new platform took place in October, in preparation for the association's first General Assembly in 2007.

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“Soft” disciplines represented in Descartes Prize nominations

René Descartes
As a mathematician and physician, René Descartes was primarily a philosopher. The inclusion of humanities and social sciences in the prize that bears his name, therefore, only seems fair. Launched by the Commission in 2000, and now known as Europe's “Little Nobel”, the Descartes Prize has, nevertheless, waited five years before crowning research in one of the “soft” sciences (the prize went to the foundation of an innovative European social observatory). But is this outbreak truly Cartesian? That was the question discussed during an after-dinner debate, in which the 2006 Grand Jury participated. Dr Ion Siotis, President of the Greek National Centre for Scientific Research, underlined the dichotomy of the “hard” sciences and “humanities”, suggesting the possibility of installing two separate prizes. Edward van den Heuvel, one of the prize winners in 2002 (recognised for his research in gamma ray bursts), was not against this proposal.
Nevertheless, he stated his belief that hard and soft sciences were less incompatible than might at first appear (furthermore, the sciences are more and more often working in collaboration), and are linked by a shared demand for critical thinking – an essential element of any science. “Asking the question ‘Is this really true?’ holds for social science as well as for the natural sciences,” he explains. “The various disciplines may on the surface appear to be different, but if you start with critical thinking, they all appear to be interconnected.”
This year, 13 humanities projects were nominated, from which the Grand Jury had to choose one. The jury is presided over by Claudie Haigneré, who was French Minister for Research and New Technologies from 2002 to 2004, and is also a former astronaut. The prize winners will be announced at a ceremony that will coincide with the launch event of the Seventh Framework Programme in March 2007. A second Descartes Prize is awarded for scientific communication. All of these prizes are not awarded to individual researchers, but to teams that have worked together at a European level (with or without the support of the EU).

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Stem cells and their lookouts

Mouse pancreas

Mouse pancreas. Research undertaken in the scope of the EuroStemCell project.


1. EU
Stem cells, on which the hopes of many biologists rest, represent the potential for providing “spare parts” for the human body. These cells, as yet at an undifferentiated stage, can later specialise and transform into targeted cells (blood vessel, liver, kidney, etc.), ready to correct specific defects. They could bring about, for example, new treatments for neuro degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
At the current stage of research, scientists mostly use excess embryos produced during IVF treatment. When these embryos achieve the blastocyst stage (an embryo of around 200 cells), they are destroyed in order for the stem cells that they contain to be used. In other words, a human embryo is eliminated in the cause of science. Can we simply ignore this question of ethics? Is this embryo really a potential human being? What about cases of IVF treatment where hundreds of thousands of these embryos are frozen without being assigned to a subsequent pregnancy? Can the EU allow itself to carry on funding such sensitive research? This was the question asked on 24 July 2006. Called to an extraordinary meeting by the Finnish presidency (a risky move, as the Finns themselves admitted), the European Ministers for research (after much wrangling) arrived at an agreement on the continuation of Community funding in the area of embryonic stem cells through the Seventh Framework Programme. Those countries opposed to the agreement are Austria, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovakia. Initially hesitant, Germany, Italy and Slovenia accepted the proposal. The United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain and Portugal have long considered such work to be indispensable.
Community funding will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and will only apply to Member States where this type of research is permitted, since legislation varies slightly from one country to another. In addition, it will exclude projects on human cloning and creation of embryos for the sole purpose of research. The lack of support from the EU obviously does not prevent such work being conducted in situations where it is permitted by national regulations.
2. USA
In the United States, a law recently approved by the Senate lifted the prohibition on the federal administration for financing embryonic research. George Bush quickly opposed the move, exercising his right of veto. This has led some observers (such as British Minister for Research, Lord Sainsbury) to postulate that this prohibition could lead to a brain drain from the US to a more liberal Europe. This movement of renegades remains improbable, however, since American states, led by California, and private companies are able to pursue research perfectly legally.
An important discovery may now cause some of those who oppose the research on ethical grounds to change their minds. Researchers in the team headed by Robert Lanza, of the US-based private company Advanced Cell Technology, have announced that they had succeeded in producing human stem cell lines without destroying the original embryo. This new technique requires scientists to act more quickly, and remove one of the eight stem cells (the blastomeres) of a three-day old embryo. This type of embryo is used in the PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) procedure that allows selection of embryos to be reimplanted, eliminating those that might be carrying an anomaly in their genetic encoding. A hotly discussed topic, and for many opponents representing an open door to eugenics, PGD itself is banned in various countries.

Two heads at ERC

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker
Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker
Greek biologist Fotis Kafatos was recently elected to the presidency of the Scientific Committee of the European Research Council (see RDT info no. 50). Now, the German Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker has been named Secretary General of this new institution, dedicated to basic scientific research. Another molecular biologist, renowned (in particular) for his work on DNA replication and recombination as well as for his interest in prion diseases, Winnacker founded the University of Munich GeneCentre. For the past nine years, he has held the presidency of the prestigious DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – the German Research Foundation). As a scientist preoccupied with questions relating to ethics, such as those associated to the risks of DNA recombination technology, Winnacker is also a member of the Life Sciences High-Level Group that has been advising the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research for the past few years.
His term will run for two years, after which he will be succeeded by the Spanish economist, Andreu Mas-Colell. This appointment heralds the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary outlook that the ERC, an autonomous financing entity, wishes to demonstrate in its funding policy.

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When companies rely on R&D

Five percent growth in investment in research and development each year. This is only a forecast, envisaged for the next three years, but it confirms a renewed interest in the private sector for R&D. If these intentions are realised, Europe will, for the first time, rival the United States in this area.

The trend has been picked up by the EU Survey on R&D Investment Business Trends, conducted as part of the IRIM project (Industrial Research Investment Monitoring), under the auspices of the Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Realised in the second half of 2005, the survey looked at 449 companies in ten sectors, together representing a significant portion (€30 billion) of Europe's investment in industrial research. It provides numerous details on the intentions of companies, on the way in which they have organised their R&D ventures and how they envisage their future. On average, these companies sub-contract 18% of their R&D activities (especially in pharmacy and biotechnology).
In contrast to certain received wisdom, they prefer to conduct R&D activities in their own country (therefore Germany is largely at the head of the “popularity ratings”), and, in the case that R&D is bought-in from abroad, the United States represents their favourite foreign location. Bringing research departments in-house does not depend on the wage costs of researchers, but instead on the realities of the markets, demand for new products and technological opportunities.

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SMEs on the seashore

Marine Pollution
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MAPO (Marine Pollution) is the name of a European initiative that has been launched with the support of the EU to exploit the untapped expertise of many SMEs that can provide effective technological means for counteracting degradation of the marine environment. “SMEs are highly innovative and reactive to this sort of problem,” says Françoise Duprat, Coordinator of the MAPO project. “They provide the widest range of skills and techniques to fight marine pollution, but their opportunities to share this information are few and far between. They have even less chance to take part in research projects that will enable us to make progress in this area.” This last point is at the centre of the concerns of the network that was formed in September 2005. MAPO wants to integrate SMEs in larger European projects – already in existence or still in planning – that aim to prevent and combat all types of marine pollution.

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Payback for growth and demographics

forested area
Almost 1% of the planet’s forested area was lost between 2000 and 2005.

In 2005, the world saw production of steel and aluminium rise to record levels. 45.6 million new vehicles left the production line. 816 million mobile telephones were sold across the planet. World GDP beat all known records at $59.6 billion. These figures are taken from the Vital Signs 2006-2007 report, produced by the Worldwatch Institute. Payback for this economic lift-off has come in the form of deterioration in the environment, due primarily to the combustion of fossil fuels that has accompanied this wave of productivity. In 2004, the use of coal rose by 6.3%, while natural gas and oil consumption climbed by 3.3% and 1.3% respectively. In 2005, the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by 0.6% at its highest level in 2004, and we also know that deforestation has been the result of 25% of annual man-made carbon emissions.

“If everyone consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustain only 1.8 billion people, not today's population of 6.5 billion. Yet the world’s population is expected not to shrink but to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050,” warns Erik Assadourian, Director of the Vital Signs report.

There is somewhat of a happy ending, in the form of indicators showing that the world’s wind-power generating capacity leapt by 24% in 2005, while production of solar energy jumped by 45%. “These developments are impressive and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets within the next five years,” says Worldwatch Institute President, Christopher Flavin. “But the transition will have to move even faster to prevent the kind of ecological and economic crises that may be precipitated by continuing dependence on fossil fuels.”

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