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Issue 11, 2nd quarter 2006

Foresighting Europe Newsletter

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Shared visions, common research futures

Emerging science and technology priorities in public research policies in the EU, the US and Japan

The study[1] provides a comparative overview of emerging scientific and technological developments in Europe and its main competitors - the United States and Japan - with an analysis of the socio-economic context in which they arise. By providing recommendations for public support to emerging science and technology priorities, the study aims to contribute to the development of the EU's research and innovation policies.


The study highlighted 40 key emerging technologies[2] in Europe, the United States and Japan, covering four priority fields: Nanotechnologies and New Materials, Information Society Technologies, Life Sciences and Technologies for Sustainable Development. The analysis of the 40 technologies shows that they have the strongest impact on the fields of Science & Technologies and Industry & Business.


Comparing public support for R & D and technology in Japan, the US and the EU, the analysis shows that the support is much more targeted on one or two fields in Japan and US than in Europe. In terms of technologies, the area of Life Sciences seems to get more support in Japan and the US than in Europe. The EU, meanwhile, seems to have a comparative advantage in terms of sustainable development technologies.

Analysis of main socio-economic factors motivating policy support

Economic factors provide the most important rationale impacting public R & D support policies in virtually all priority fields (with the partial exception of the field of Sustainable Development) and almost regardless of the geographical area. Of the three geographical areas in question, Europe is the region that is most strongly influenced by societal - that is, social and environmental - factors. As a matter of fact, issues regarding the environment and quality of life generally provide a unifying and defining element of European R & D support policy.

The European research landscape is characterised by important differences between the different countries. A number of factors account for this, such as countries' GDP, their political environment, their scientific position, the relative importance of the defence sector, their industrial fabric, and so on.

Economic factors that impact on public financing of R & D policies are present in Europe, the US and Japan. However, Europe is faced with policy rigidities that have an important impact on the efficiency of public support, influencing both the form in which support is being administered and the organisation of research itself. Europe does not have any fully-fledged support mechanisms, and the key role of the environmental factor (with the precautionary principle) and the relative weakness of policy institutions at European level seem to represent further obstacles to the creation of an efficient public support structure. Nevertheless, Europe occupies a significant scientific position on some technologies, such as "Ultra-thin functional coatings", "Bioactive materials and surface" and "Nanocomposite and nanometrical-nanoscale reinforcements in electronics, chemistry, medicine".


Along with the proposed scenarios, different recommendations are made on how to enhance Europe's position with regard to both the technologies and the role of Europe, in terms of R & D competition and cooperation.

Corrective strategies to prevent a decline of Europe's S&T positioning in the eventuality of a failure of the EU Lisbon strategy could include: the development of a new "airbus strategy", based on a key economic field in which Europe can, by the way of public and private partnerships, take the lead within 30 years; the fostering of R & D strategies and cooperation based on strong industrial-based technologies having an existing potential leadership such as "mobile communications", "micro and nano-sensors" or "biofuels"; or the creation of the right conditions to attract foreign researchers in key technologies in which Europe (or a majority of European countries) seems to need competences.

Other specific actions could be:

  • To establish a strong industrial European strategy as a basis for a R & D strategic policy linked with economic issues. As long as Europe does not have this strategy, R & D targeting on economic issues will depend on national will, environment and opportunities;
  • To enhance the participation of SMEs - which constitute the basis of Europe's industrial environment - in R & D projects;
  • To strongly support access to venture capital for small research-intensive companies - through incentives, organisation, networks, pools, and so on - especially in the field of ICT, Life Sciences and nanotechnologies;
  • To organise awareness-raising campaigns targeting the public at large in order to promote a better understanding of the potential applications of some key technologies, such as stem cells or protein engineering;
  • To organise networking between scientific communities in order to foster convergence - particularly in nano-computers and microbiotics applied to biology;
  • To tackle issues at global level by fostering the large-scale dissemination of European results;
  • To facilitate cooperation between research institutes and very small firms or associations through European research programs - groups of artists for research in virtual realities, artists and industries, and so on.

Two aspects are of particular interest both for R & D public policy decisions and foresight work:

  • There are serious gaps in the positioning of different scientific fields and the role of public policies could therefore be dramatically modified. For each scientific field, the level of development and the process by which it has been reached are of crucial importance in assessing its future potential. The "converging" issue, emphasising convergence between scientific fields and between technologies, raises the importance of focusing on this approach and on the need for a better understanding of scientific realities and their determinants.
  • The importance of socio-economic factors in explaining public policy decisions is obvious. But these factors and their evolution can represent major trends that can strongly impact on public actors in their decision-making abilities and opportunities. These factors, as trends, are not only part of the scenery for foresight practitioners, but could offer important potential for decision that could drastically change the scientific positioning of countries in a scientific field. Without minimizing issues such as budget or potential market, socio-economic factors could strongly support decision-making at political level and act as a rationale for choices and prioritisation.


[1] The study "Emerging science and technology priorities in public research policies of the European countries, the US and Japan has been carried out for the European countries (EU Member States, Associate and Candidate Countries), the US and Japan by a consortium led by CM International and comprising moreover ICTAF (Israel), VTT (Finland) and Z punkt (Germany). As to the analysis of foresight studies in the US and Japan, the partnership contracted local teams: the Institute for Emerging Issues (North Carolina State University) and the Institute for Industrial Interchange (Tokyo).

[2] Biotechnologies, agro-food industry, health (36%); ICT (20%); Energy, environment (20%); Materials, chemistry, physics, electronics (15%); Construction, infrastructure (5%); Technologies for design, management and production (2%); Transport, aeronautics, space (2%).