Brussels, 31 Mar 2003
It has taken Portugal almost a decade, but this plucky EU state is showing why it should not be overlooked in science and technology.
Although traditionally not recognised for its high-tech research and development (R&D), Portugal has taken major steps in creating fertile ground from which its knowledge-based economy can grow. It started in 1995 when the government created the Ministry of Science and Technology, which took on the responsibility for coordinating and implementing Portugal's science and technology (S&T) policy.
Portugal's EU Presidency, in 2000, was another landmark event where S&T took centre stage not only in Portugal, but also across the EU. The resulting Lisbon Council resolution to make Europe the world's most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010 gave Portugal added incentive to become a genuine information society.
Eight years after the initial steps were taken, what progress has Portugal made? According to the October 2002 European Innovation Scoreboard, the southern European state is still below EU average, especially in high-tech patent applications and venture capital investment, as well as business expenditure on R&D. But Portugal fares better in other areas.
"A look at trend data reveals that Portugal appears to be catching up in terms of public R&D expenditure, home internet access, new science and engineering graduates, business R&D expenditures, and high-tech patents (although here the low starting basis may bias trend analysis)," the report says.
No optical illusions about Portuguese R&D
Portugal's economy has long been based on mature industries, such as textiles, metalwork and shipbuilding. These industries are dominated by large national companies employing few technical or research staff, according to a Euroabstracts feature on Portugal in 2000.
But there are signs that this small nation is shaking off its past. For example, researchers at the University of Minho's School of Science have developed a prototype optical corneal topographer, which maps corneal surfaces and thickness. This technique is used to diagnose some visual defects and provides information to correct ocular abnormalities. The team will be at the 2003 Hannover Fair in April to find partners to roll out and market their prototype.
But this is a sticking point in Portugal. Finding partners to develop new technologies commercially is difficult, according to Ana Paula A. Marques from TecMinho, a centre for helping Portuguese technology transfer. "We've been doing state-of-the-art research here for a long time, but there's a big gap between research and commercial development," said Ms Marques. "We still have to look to northern Europe for this."