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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - July 2005   
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NEW INDEPENDENT STATES (NIS)
Title  SOS grey matter

One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the structural and economic collapse brought by the implosion of the Soviet Union, in 1991, dealt a near fatal blow to its impressive scientific capacity. Thrown into disarray and with financial resources that dried up almost overnight, a large part of the scientific community in the countries that now make up the Community of New Independent States (NIS(1) was threatened with extinction as some of the best brains emigrated and scientific activities began to disintegrate. Aware of the need to stop a process that was undermining any prospect for economic recovery by this geostrategic region, in 1993 the 12 EU Member States at that time decided to set up the INTAS(2) association. The mission of this autonomous and flexible organisation was to help NIS researchers to overcome this major crisis. RTD info looks at the achievements of this ‘emergency strategy’ that evolved into a genuine international co-operation programme.

Since 2000, INTAS has provided some €2 million in funding for 19 thematic research projects on the rehabilitation of the large landlocked Aral Sea (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), whose basin is drying up. This major ecological disaster – caused in the Soviet era by diverting the rivers that flowed into it for irrigation – has had dramatic consequences for the region in terms of drinking water supplies, health and the fishing-related economic activity of a population of 5 million.
Since 2000, INTAS has provided some €2 million in funding for 19 thematic research projects on the rehabilitation of the large landlocked Aral Sea (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), whose basin is drying up. This major ecological disaster – caused in the Soviet era by diverting the rivers that flowed into it for irrigation – has had dramatic consequences for the region in terms of drinking water supplies, health and the fishing-related economic activity of a population of 5 million.
© ESA
INTAS has expanded considerably since its launch 12 years ago. In addition to the European Commission and the 25 EU Member States of the enlarged Union, seven other countries have also joined the initiative (3). The distinctive feature of INTAS is that it is based on direct co-operation links between scientists from the 12 NIS and their European partners, supporting principally research projects and networks with joint participation, and selected following calls for proposals. Since 1998, grants for young doctoral and postdoctoral researchers from these countries have also been available.

Between 1993 and 2003, more than 2 700 projects and networks involving some 15 000 research teams and 55 000 EU and NIS scientists benefited from total financing of over €195 million. Over 1 000 grants totalling almost €9 million were also awarded to young scientists.

The Union provided the greater part of the INTAS resources (up to 93%), in particular through what are known as ‘open’ calls – for which no thematic or geographical criteria are applied, simply scientific excellence – that absorbed four-fifths of the INTAS scientific support. The remaining finance (7%) was channelled through thematic calls targeted at scientific priorities or regional problems. Some of these were launched in the form of ‘joint’ or ‘collaborative’ calls with financial support from the European partners and/or organisations such as CERN, the CNES (FR), the ESA and Airbus Industries, but also including a contribution by the NIS in question (for example, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan or Moldavia).

Attraction of fundamental research
The favoured themes of scientists in the framework of the almost 60 calls for proposals launched to date most certainly lie in the field of fundamental research. This is because, in 1993, international scientific co-operation with the NIS was almost exclusively with academic scientific institutions and universities, a world that concentrates primarily on fundamental research. The projects selected by INTAS that have involved the greatest number of NIS teams are astrophysics, particle and plasma physics, mathematics, the information technologies, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, the environment and energy. Given its importance within the group, it is hardly surprisingly that Russia comes out top (in terms of the number of teams involved in the projects adopted and the financing granted), followed by Ukraine and Belarus.

The system of association proposed by INTAS aroused particular interest among the NIS scientists, illustrating to what extent – in countries where national research budgets were cut so drastically – this opportunity for international co-operation and external financing represented a vital means of survival. When interviewed for the purposes of INTAS evaluations of the 1993-2003 period, funding beneficiaries expressed a high level of satisfaction at the boost – both professional and personal – resulting from the increased international recognition and, more pragmatically, the input of resources. Another reason for satisfaction is the complementary nature of the INTAS actions: on one hand, the opening up to excellence per se in the open calls, and on the other the thematic calls targeted at scientific priorities and /or regional problems (such as the Aral Sea Basin).

An incomplete success
The other side of the coin is the legitimate frustration of both research teams and individual researchers when, despite the scientific excellence of their proposals, they cannot be selected due to INTAS’ limited resources – the annual budget for project calls for proposals, grants for young researchers and other actions averages €20 million. The low success rate for open calls (10% for the most recent) is nevertheless significantly higher for joint or thematic calls and research grants. For the 2005 calls, INTAS is applying a two-stage submission process designed to limit the sense of frustration among the eliminated teams.

The opinion of the group of experts who, in 2004, drew up a ten-year report on INTAS, is that it played a role that is widely recognised as being very positive for all the beneficiaries in the NIS and the European Union. Nevertheless, its limited financial dimension prevented it from having the same impact across all scientific fields and geographical zones in the face of the deep crisis that continues to afflict the scientific community of the former Soviet Union today – and this despite an almost 50% reduction in personnel from the 1.5 million of 15 years ago. Nevertheless, the mutual scientific and socio-economic interests that must cause Europe to help salvage and join forces with this potential remain, perhaps, more pertinent today than ever before.

Geopolitical aspect
The NIS region as a whole – with which the enlarged Union now has an extensive common border – remains rich, not only in human resources based on a high-level tradition of scientific and technological education, but also in strategically important natural resources (gas, oil, minerals). This geopolitical aspect that had much to do with the birth of INTAS – that is, the desire to stabilise and restore the economies of these countries – has not changed. The global context of this challenge, in terms of the increasing dangers in the Persian Gulf and the growing economic power of China and other major Asian countries, has nevertheless created a new climate. “In the face of these major challenges, it is very much in the interests of the European Union, Russia and the other NIS to continue to deepen their scientific and technological co-operation. Essentially, they have little alternative given global competition and the expected changes in this field,” concludes Peter Idenburg (Technological University of Delft, NL), president of the 2004 evaluation panel. "INTAS is today at a crossroads. In a rapidly changing geopolitical context, is the statutory mandate of INTAS still appropriate or does it require radical change? What roles, what institutional framework, what operating methods can be proposed?” These questions are now on the agenda.

(1) New Independent States, that is: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
(2) The INTernational ASsociation for the Promotion of Co-operation with Scientists from the New Independent States (NIS) of the Former Soviet Union.
(3) Iceland, Israel, Norway, Switzerland, and the three candidate countries for EU accession – Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.


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