Brussels, 25 Mar 2003
The new and emerging science and technology (NEST) programme is an opportunity for the research community to tell us what is important, said William Cannell, head of unit for NEST in the Commission's Research DG, in an interview with CORDIS News.
NEST is a new feature of the European research landscape and is aimed at exploring new avenues of science and technology as well as consolidating and accelerating the development of European capabilities in emerging research fields.
Commenting on the impetus of the programme, Mr Cannell said that NEST reflects the overall tendency of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) which has moved towards an opportunity led programme rather than a purely demand led one.
'There has been a tendency to fix our objectives according to some notion of social and economic need which is of course extremely valid but has in the past tended to give the impression to researchers that [...] their projects must respond to a whole series of different objectives.
I think it is important to say that NEST is a significant achievement from the point of view of Community research strategy because for the first time we have an activity which is basically flexible in implementation,' stressed Mr Cannell.
He added that instead of defining research topics which must be followed come what may during the course of the framework programme, NEST's mandate is to respond to opportunities and needs as they happen.
Mr Cannell pointed to areas that are outside of FP6's thematic priorities, but which necessitate additional creativity, originality and ambition. However, the NEST programme should not be perceived as just filling the gaps left between thematic priorities. 'NEST has a particular rationale which is to spot very interesting and new opportunities.'
Part of the rationale pays particular attention to multidisciplinary activities. Mr Cannell referred to nanotechnology as an example of a research activity that has been successfully developed at the interface of several scientific areas and has now emerged as a major area of research. 'Different disciplines have come together and there has been a fantastic increase in opportunity because people are able to think from the perspective of two or three disciplines rather than one.'
Such areas of research, according to Mr Cannell, really demonstrate the potential that NEST is trying to harness: A process whereby researchers with new ambitions cross borders and attract other researchers in different research areas to join the process, and from there create new disciplines which have a completely unconventional character.
Mr Cannell describes NEST as having two modes of operation: one mode is purely bottom up where researchers can come forward with the challenges and the opportunities that they think are interesting. The projects for consideration in this area are ADVENTURE projects, for new opportunities that could in principle make advances in science, and INSIGHT projects, designed to look at possible new risks identified by scientific discoveries.
The second operational mode will be brought in during the course of the programme. 'We will try to confer a larger critical mass to the research that we are doing [...]. Here the logic is to think in terms of the European scale and the opportunity to build European capabilities.' The PATHFINDER initiative will build upon newly discovered areas for research.
The traditional instruments will be used for NEST projects to begin with, said Mr Cannell. Using large scale instruments such as Integrated Projects (IPs) and Networks of Excellence (NoEs) at an early stage might be 'counter productive', he said.
However, Mr Cannell noted that with the PATHFINDER initiatives, 'we may use the larger instruments because there we will have a much clearer agenda for the research that we want to conduct.'
With regard to the timeframe in which NEST is to run, 'We are attempting to work actively with the research community on an ongoing basis to identify new topics. We are in a continual process of actively searching for new research areas,' said Mr Cannell. The head of unit went on to explain that the ADVENTURE and INSIGHT projects will have a call deadline every six months. At the same time, PATHFINDER initiatives will most likely be carried out on a yearly basis so that they work in parallel.
In terms of response to the first calls for proposals, which were published very recently, Mr Cannell said that while it is too early to say, feedback from the ground has been positive. Using a network of national contact points (NCPs) specific to NEST, the Commission is ensuring that the research community are aware of the defined evaluation criteria which is very specific to the requirements of NEST projects.
'We are experiencing a settling down phase in which we are trying to inform the research community and ourselves on what we are doing. We see this very much as an activity by and for the research community. We are providing the machinery to make it happen but it is the research community itself that is making important judgements, concluded Mr Cannell.
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