Commissioner Viviane Reding: Strengthening Photonics Research in Europe -- Speech given at the Official launch of PHOTONICS21 (European Photonics Platform)

December 5, 2005

Brussels, 02 Dec 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today for the launch of "Photonics21", the European Technology Platform in Photonics. Already last May, I received a visit from members of your initiative, presenting their strategy paper "Photonics for the 21st Century". I was impressed by the facts and visions given, and encouraged the initiative to proceed. Therefore, it is now a pleasure to see the progress made, although much work is still ahead.

However, before going into details of what the Commission expects from your initiative, let me put this briefly in the larger context of research in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and of the Commission's research policy.

Importance of ICT research for economic growth

The Lisbon agenda calls for a more competitive Europe. We need higher economic growth through more innovation and higher productivity, this will create jobs and bring the wealth we need to sustain our social model.

R&D investment is crucial. Which is why we have a Lisbon goal to increase the European R&D investment from 2% to 3% of GDP. I have to warn you that our latest estimates indicate that we are not on track to reach 3% by 2010, even the most optimistic scenarios indicate a ceiling of 2.6%.

On this issue of R&D investment let me say that the financial perspectives concern me greatly. The limitation by some member states of the EU budget to 1% of GDP could well mean that the EU research budget for ICT turns out to be less in 2007 than in 2006. If this turns out to be the case then we should be even more careful how we spend the money so that we concentrate it on those areas that can deliver innovation, growth and jobs.

If the level of investment is important, therefore, so is how we spend our research money. Do we support research in ivory towers or do we make sure that funding is directed towards research that will fuel the growth of emerging industries and new applications?

If it is the latter then ICT research is not just "nice to do" it is necessary.

Why do I say this? Because 40% of productivity gains are currently attributed to ICT. In Europe, however, the total R&D investment in ICT is 3 times less than that of the United States and 30% less than in Japan. In R&D investment per inhabitant, Europe lags behind even more. In the EU we spend 80€ per head of population, the US spends 350€. And there are new competitors emerging on all sides. Look at the growth rates of India and china and the rest of South East Asia in R&D.

Frankly, this gives us room - plenty of room - for improvement!

Importance of Photonics

Let me now look in more detail at the specific role of Photonics technologies. ICT is mainly seen as being driven by the miniaturisation of microelectronics. But, in fact, photonics have been making a major contribution. Optical fibre communication has been the unseen force behind ever faster and cheaper telecommunications and the internet. In consumer electronics, the key technology in CD and DVD players is an optical technology, now found in any personal computer. Large and flat colour displays for computers and television are now mass market products – and standard equipment for PCs. High energy lasers are widely used in machine tools for industrial welding, cutting and surface treatment. Machine vision is a core technology for highly precise, automated and flexible industrial production systems. Lasers are also increasingly finding application in medicine for micro-surgery and non-invasive imaging.

The list goes on… and we can look forward to more important developments such as flat, power-efficient light sources – important in a world where energy efficiency is becoming a watchword; sensors systems for environmental and health monitoring- such as the early detection of cancer. These are only a few of the examples to come.

Challenges ahead of us

Photonics is already an important economic force. As I have mentioned, some applications are large and are growing fast. Today, the optics & photonics industry employs more than 500,000 people in Europe, two thirds of them in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

These achievements are significant, but overall, European companies have only some 10% of global production in photonics and, in my view, we are not moving ahead vigorously enough to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. Why is this?

  • Our technology base is fragmented. Photonics is made up of a large variety of technologies and an even larger group of applications. This opens up many new opportunities, but we may have to focus our efforts if we want to make an impact.

  • The research landscape in Europe is also fragmented and lacks scale. For instance we have to compete with the United States where R&D is 4 times higher than in Europe.

  • Industry is meanwhile challenged by the Far East, which has captured most of the world production in photonics components. And, we should be aware; these countries are now moving swiftly up the value chain into R&D.
Should Europe give up this race? The answer has to be a clear NO. The area is too important. But, Europe can succeed only if we act together. This means:
  • A joint vision of the applications and technologies where we can make an impact if we focus our efforts. We should ask ourselves with what products and where in the industrial system can Europe obtain the best added value.

  • A joint effort to structure R&D landscape, to make the most from our resources. This means better coordination between public and private research and between European and national research programmes. Let me stress, however, that the platform must stay open to all players that can make a valid contribution.

  • Increased R&D investment in photonics from public and even more so from the private sector.

  • Putting ideas and research results into practice. This means a stronger collaboration between industrial and research institutes, effective links between research and innovation programmes, and encouragement of high-tech SMEs and start-ups.

    Welcome for the PHOTONICS21 ETP as an indication of industry coming together

    You will by now have realised that I warmly welcome your PHOTONICS21 initiative. Photonics is a key technology for Europe's economic development, whose full potential can be exploited only in cooperation on a European scale.

    Technology Platforms are a vehicle for the European Commission to cooperate closely with industry, for ensuring that R&D will result in increased competitiveness. I am pleased to see already a strong industrial involvement on your side and I would like to encourage industry to engage itself even further. However, industry should also proactively work with the research centres, in particular in setting joint priorities and in exploiting results collaboration and innovation.

    Sense of urgency to move before opportunities are taken up elsewhere

    Today, you will start elaborating a Strategic Research Agenda for FP7 and beyond. Please note that we need your Strategic Research Agenda by March next year, if it is to be considered as to FP7. The budget allocation for Photonics will depend strongly on the quality of this SRA, and on the related industrial commitment and the expected impact.

    Finally, let me also express my wish that this Strategic Research Agenda will be sufficiently ambitious for capturing new business opportunities before they are taken up elsewhere. In this sense, my best wishes are with you for the success of your new Technology Platform.

    Authors: D. Beernaert & M. Hohenbichler, INFSO G1 (Tel: 68020 & 96043) Contributors: M. Arentoft, INFSO C2; P. van Hove, INFSO F1; H. Rajbenbach, INFSO G1

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