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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - July 2005   

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Title  Europe as a partner in world science

The EU has been involved in scientific and technological co-operation for more than two decades now. During this period, policy has evolved increasingly towards an opening up of European programmes to third country players from all over the world. Interview with Louis Bellemin, Head of the International Scientific Co-operation Policy Unit at DG Research until May 2005.

Louis Bellemin: " The international dimension is no longer confined to a specific programme for scientific and technological co-operation, but is now inherent in all Community research activities."
Louis Bellemin: " The international dimension is no longer confined to a specific programme for scientific and technological co-operation, but is now inherent in all Community research activities."
Could you trace the development of the Community’s international scientific co-operation?

Louis Bellemin – Recent years have seen some notable changes in policy. In the 1980s, our activities were concentrated in the developing countries. This co-operation – which I would describe as “assistance” – was aimed at helping them solve their problems in fields such as health, the environment and agricultural production. In a way it supplemented the Community’s development aid.

In the 1990s, scientific and technical co-operation policy acquired a new dimension. It opened up, in terms of objectives and geographically. We started to develop scientific co-operation agreements with the industrialised countries and with the ‘emerging economies’ – meaning countries that are developed in some sectors while facing the problems of developing countries in others. Our action changed. We sought to develop partnerships with which to tackle issues of common interest. With the United States, Australia and Japan, for example, we developed research co-operation projects in a number of high-tech sectors – most notably in the field of materials or with the IMS (1) multilateral industrial initiative, or to tackle global or regional environmental problems. 

As the Community’s scientific and technological co-operation is necessarily linked to the European Union’s external policy, geopolitical developments in some regions also caused us to diversify our approach. In the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, preparations for the recent enlargement resulted in the implementation of important programmes to restore the research potential of these Central and Eastern European countries, which had become candidate countries, and to include them in the European Research Area. Another example is the political change in South Africa that enabled us to enter into a co-operation agreement with a country with which we had not previously co-operated in this way. On the other hand, events in the Former Yugoslavia caused us to freeze co-operation in the 1990s.

In terms of the figures, in the early 2000s more than 3 000 projects were launched under the INCO research programme. These involved around 8 000 research teams and about 40 000 partners, half of them Europeans and the rest from third countries. Therefore, at the time of launching the Sixth Framework Programme we had a number of very important partnerships which provided the basis for the most recent developments.

Yet under the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006) resources allocated to co-operation seem to have been reduced…

Not at all. A new and much more open approach has been introduced, in addition to further developing the approach pursued to date, that is, the specific actions of projects or support measures, defined in accordance with the particularities of regional groups of countries, which are continuing. The point is that the international dimension is no longer confined to a specific scientific and technological co-operation programme but is now inherent in all Community research activities.  

For the first time, researchers from any country in the world can participate fully in all the principal research and development activities supported by the Union. When these are not industrialised countries, the Commission can even support this participation by intervening financially so that their scientists can join European consortiums.

The principal criteria for deciding Community intervention of course remain common interest and scientific excellence. For the Community, it is a question of linking up our researchers with the best know-how in the world; for the third countries, it is the opportunity to enrich their capacities by co-operating with Union scientists. Common interest and mutual benefits, which can be very diverse, are the two key words in these partnerships. Usually they concern problems on such a scale that it is in everyone’s interest to tackle them together. There are many examples of these: climate monitoring, management of major environmental challenges, vast projects such as ITER in the field of thermonuclear fusion or GALILEO for satellite navigation, or the health battle being waged by some regions of the world against Aids, malaria and tuberculosis. The benefits are mutual. We too are concerned by the development of respiratory ailments or bird flu in Asia. It is in our interest to tackle these issues with scientists from these countries and to try and help resolve them.  

Finally, the other particularity of present policy is to implement an action plan for international mobility. Our aim is to attract excellent foreign researchers to Europe who will boost our own scientific and technological capacity and then, when they return home, strengthen relations between the scientific communities in their country and the EU by maintaining links with the host laboratories in Europe. The developing or emerging countries must not see this as a brain drain but as a learning opportunity for their very best scientists and, in the medium term, as a progressive strengthening of their scientific and technological capacities. What is more, appropriate measures are in place to promote the return of researchers to these countries. 

How is this common interest defined? How do the partnerships with these third countries function? 

Special forums for political dialogue and debate are set up for this purpose, consisting of the regional communities of the third countries and Member States. For the Mediterranean Basin, it was the 1995 Barcelona Summit that set up an institutional forum – known as MoCo – to define and monitor scientific and technological co-operation. Over the past two years we have adopted a similar approach for the Asian countries, Latin America and the Caribbean and, most recently, the Western Balkans, namely the four former countries of Yugoslavia (Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia Montenegro and Macedonia) and Albania. For some major partners – the United States, Canada, Australia, China, India and Russia – the framework for dialogue consists of joint committees charged with monitoring implementation of scientific and technological co-operation agreements. Today, we have such specific agreements with nearly all the important partners worldwide, in Asia, the Mediterranean, Newly Independent States and on the American continent. 

So for the developing countries we have moved away from assistance and towards partnership. But what happens if countries have needs but nothing to offer in exchange? 

The answer is very clear. We have spoken of mutual interests and this principle also applies to co-operation with the developing countries. The problems that concern them are usually in the fields of health, food safety, energy, water and the environment. These subjects have always been of Community concern. But 20 years ago we tackled them by defining here, in Brussels, what we believed to be right. The big difference today is that these activities are defined jointly. We are partners. But while the approach has changed, that does not mean we no longer take into account the problems linked to development, the tackling of which is also in the interests of the Community at various levels: political, economic and social, for example. So again you see there is this ‘exchange’ between the Community and these third countries. 

Is this new policy of opening up European programmes to third country researchers bringing its rewards? 

It is working. At present it may not be at the level we hoped but I am convinced that this opening up is excellent for the Community and for our partner countries and that in future they can only participate more in our activities. But it is an innovative approach and our partners were used to the mechanisms and instruments of the previous co-operation programmes. These new possibilities to which they were previously denied access are original. It takes a certain time for the information to get through and to learn how to use these new instruments for maximum benefit.

I thus feel that a special effort must be made to circulate information on these new opportunities and the ways of using them. If you are in the depths of Chile or South Africa it is important to have the right information in time. That means before it is published in the Official Journal. If it is a call for proposals with a three-month response deadline, that requires certain preparation. That is why we started to put into place systems comparable to the national contact points that exist in Europe. These contact points now exist in the Mediterranean countries and the Western Balkans. We have also launched an information network covering the Russian Federation and the NIS. In other cases – in China, Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa in particular – we are helping to put into place joint structures to promote this co-operation. 

Actions of this kind are vital and they are showing their worth. More than 500 Russian teams participated in the first calls for proposals under the Sixth Framework Programme following a vast information campaign, for example. 

A major ambition of the European Research Area is to create more ‘25 + 1’ synergies, meaning better coordination of the objectives and certain strategic activities of the research programmes of individual EU Member States. Does this dimension also concern scientific and technological co-operation policy?

" The problems of concern to the developing countries are usually in the fields of health, food safety, energy, water and the environment. Twenty years ago our approach was to decide in Brussels what we believed needed to be done. The big difference today is that we now decide this together."
" The problems of concern to the developing countries are usually in the fields of health, food safety, energy, water and the environment. Twenty years ago our approach was to decide in Brussels what we believed needed to be done. The big difference today is that we now decide this together."
We are developing many synergies of this kind. The Member States are present in the frameworks for dialogue that I have just mentioned. These exchanges lead to the defining of action plans for co-operation in which they are closely associated. When it comes to concrete implementation, the actions may be either purely Community (and not necessarily uniquely through the Framework Programme) or multilateral and taken in hand by two or three European countries, or mixed, involving Member States and the Union.

The Sixth Framework Programme also has the ERA-NET instrument with which to strengthen synergies between the individual Member States. It can also be used for international co-operation activities. In this context there is co-operation between various Member States and candidate countries, with the Western Balkans or with Latin America and China.

What should the Seventh Framework Programme, now being prepared, bring in terms of scientific and technological co-operation? 

The philosophy should not change. I believe that the principle of opening up the programmes should be maintained, as should the partnership strategy, based on principles of reciprocal benefits and mutual interest. This will no doubt be the basis for the new programme that should be finalised in the course of the coming months. 

The Commission’s proposals, which are now being studied, would have the effect of adapting and improving the set of implementing instruments for Community research and technological development activities – instruments that should also remain open to third country researchers. Actions to encourage researcher mobility should also continue to be accompanied by specific financial measures enabling researchers who come to Europe to return to their country of origin. It would also be desirable to be able to adapt the support for bilateral national co-operation programmes by developing access to ERA-NET-type solutions. 

It would also be a good thing to encourage the ability to respond in the face of scientific demands that could arise very suddenly. At the time of the SARS crisis, the severe acute respiratory syndrome of bird origin, the Chinese invoked their agreement with the Union to propose joint research activities. We were able to respond rapidly to this request, and are quite proud of the fact, but it would have been made much easier if we could have had access to a budget provided specifically to exploit the possibilities offered by scientific co-operation agreements.

Personally, I am quite convinced that everybody today recognises the importance of international scientific and technological co-operation at a time when Europe wants to move faster than ever towards a knowledge society, a development that compels us to work with all the other countries in the world. I am therefore convinced that the Seventh Framework Programme will naturally include the necessary international dimension. 

(1) Intelligence Manufacturing Systems.

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