Commission calls for a boost in basic research

January 16, 2004

Brussels, 15 January 2004

Today in Brussels European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin presented the EU blueprint on basic research. The Communication on "Europe and fundamental research" provides an overview of basic research in the EU as compared to other regions, including the US and Japan, and calls for a debate on how to promote this field. Basic research is an important part of the European scientific landscape and a field in which Europe has always excelled. However, for the past two decades, it has been overshadowed by other priorities mainly applied, market-oriented research. But Europe cannot afford to neglect basic research. In recent months, the scientific community has launched an intense debate on the need to act. By adopting this Communication, the Commission wishes to contribute to this discussion.

"Instead of asking the question, what is the future of basic research in Europe, we should really ask, what would be the future of Europe without basic research," says Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "Our ambition to build a knowledge-based society and a European Research Area requires a strong science base and high quality human capital. Basic research is the answer to both demands. Today's fundamental research will turn into tomorrow's growth, competitiveness and better quality of life. The US has understood this. The EU is still lagging behind. Ours is a wake-up call: we need to act now to reverse this situation and fill the gap."

What can basic research do?

There is hardly any example of 20th century innovation which is not indebted to basic scientific thought. Two of the most recent success stories illustrate this point:

  • The atomic clocks used in today's Global Positioning System (GPS) were developed in the 1940s, in order to test Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

  • The World Wide Web (WWW) was invented at CERN (the Geneva-based European Centre for Nuclear Research), in order to improve communication between its many international partners.
Both discoveries have led to key technological applications and markets worth billions of euros, created millions of jobs and made our daily lives easier and safer. This was made possible by the support of the public sector. But basic research is not only about potential applications. It has a key role to play in the training of researchers. By conducting research at the leading edge of knowledge, scientists acquire skills and capabilities which they will use throughout their careers.

How does Europe fare?

High marks on publications, lower on citations. In terms of publications, Europe is in the lead with 41.3% of the world total compared with 31.4% for the USA. In terms of number of references, regarded as the best indicator of the quality of research, Europe is behind in most disciplines: US researchers account for about one-third more references. Europe achieved very good results during the early 20th century Nobel awards, but performances have been falling ever since.

The fragmentation of Europe's research systems due to structural differences within Member States of the European Union has had an impact on several aspects: lack of co-operation and co-ordination, lack of critical mass, but also more importantly, lack of competition at the European level.

The prospects

It is time to bring a new definition of European added value, by allowing individual researchers in any European country to compete with all other researchers on the basis of excellence. "Individual grants" awarded by the US "National Science Foundation" are allocated with such a system. The NSF system has proven to be very effective in promoting fundamental research. Such a system would provide an effective complement to the existing policy of fostering collaborations and networks at European level.

Innovative approaches

A high-level Expert Group chaired by Mr Federico Mayor has assessed the feasibility of the creation of a "European Research Council" for basic research and made recommendations. Converging with the conclusions of this report, the Commission will make proposals for the introduction of such research mechanisms. This, and the increased support for basic research, will be one of the main themes of the Union's future action in the field of research. The details of this action, including the possible creation of a "European Research Council", will be the object of a wider political debate, to take place during the coming months.

Urgent measures

In parallel to this bid to strengthen excellence in basic research through competition, it will be essential to strengthen European support for research infrastructures and support the creation of centres of excellence in the enlarged Union. Other measures will include: increased support for the development of human resources, researcher training and the development of careers in science; support collaboration and networking; and improved co-ordination of national activities, policies and programmes in the field of basic research.

For further information, please visit the following website:

DN: IP/04/48 Date: 15/01/2004

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