Brussels, 19 Jul 2006
There are only a few days left to go before the EU's Competitiveness Council meets to find an agreement on the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). And while 'the climate for discussion is positive', according to Philippe Busquin, former Research Commissioner and current Chairman of the European Parliament's Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA), some 'sticking points' remain. The Council will need to reach consensus to avoid jeopardising the start date of the programme, he says.
In an interview with CORDIS News, the ex-Commissioner spoke candidly about these and other aspects of European research policy, as well as the new face of STOA.
The schedule for FP7 has been tight. In April 2005, the European Commission adopted its original FP7 proposal, while the budgetary aspects to the programme were adopted in May 2006, following agreement on the EU's Financial Perspectives for 2007 to 2013. The Parliament adopted the proposals in June 2006, requesting some 1,700 amendments; the majority of which were then incorporated into the Commission's proposal.
The amended proposal is now in the hands of the ministers who will attend the European Competitiveness Council on 24 July. If adopted, the proposal will return to the Parliament for a second reading in the autumn before the programme is officially launched on 1 January 2007.
'The [European] parliament is very aware of the importance of this deadline and we are doing everything we can to ensure that the date is respected,' Mr Busquin told CORDIS News. 'But it does not just depend on us alone, there are a few matters that only the Council can settle.'
One such matter is Austria's stand, during its EU Presidency, against the Euratom programme for nuclear research and training activities. Although part of the Framework Programme, the Euratom programme has a different Treaty base and is a separate entity negotiated and adopted at the same time as the framework programme. It is not subject to the co-decision procedure.
During its sixth-month Presidency, Austria reiterated its opposition to the Euratom programme, arguing that the EU funds for nuclear research should be used exclusively for non-dangerous research in nuclear fusion, and for ensuring the safety of existing nuclear power plants.
'The Austrian position was completely unacceptable. I have never seen anything like it in an EU Presidency,' said Mr Busquin. 'By not wanting to implement Euratom, they have placed internal political priorities above European. This goes against the spirit of Europe.'
Another item which will feature high on the agenda is the European Research Council (ERC), which Mr Busquin likened to a 'new child': 'We have to make sure we give it all of our attention and all the support it needs in order for it to grow and become the best it possibly can,' said the MEP. One small bone of contention has been the review process. Last month MEPs had requested that the review should be independent and carried out by 2008. Speaking to the Parliament during a debate on FP7, EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik suggested that this would be too soon. The revised proposal states that the review will be carried out 'no later than 2010'. 'I hope that a common decision can be reached about the ERC, particularly with regard to the Parliament's association with its review process,' said Mr Busquin.
More recently, on 13 July, MEPs adopted a total of 21 amendments to the rules of participation for FP7 - a separate proposal to that of the framework programme. The amendments include the removal of additional costs and a clarification of the role of project coordinators, collective responsibility and guarantees. 'These amendments will ensure that discussions around the rules will be much more focused and simplified,' said Mr Busquin. 'The Commission and Council can decide to drop or incorporate these amendments but the basis is there on which the Commission can work.'
Although optimistic that a consensus on the framework programme will be reached by the Competitiveness Council, Mr Busquin warned that any delay in the programme's calendar could cause an irreparable gap in project financing. 'No time should be lost,' he said. 'The first calls need to be launched by the end of the year so that the scientific community can start organising their consortia as soon as possible.'
Asked whether it was strange to look on at the preparation of FP7 from a perspective other than that of a Commissioner, Mr Busquin said that he remains as committed as ever to the goals of European research policy. These include the European Research Area (ERA), which Mr Busquin formulated during his time as Commissioner, and the need to increase research spending in Europe.
This continuing dedication is visible in Mr Busquin's work as MEP and member of the Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), where he shadowed the former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek as rapporteur on the FP7 proposals. Given such commitment to European research policy, it is not surprising to learn of the extent of his disappointment over the whittling down of the budget for FP7, which he called a missed opportunity. 'I was one of the first to cry out with indignation over the reduction of the FP7 budget,' he said, adding that the budget fell particularly short in the areas of energy and health.
The ex-Commissioner said that the Commission could not be blamed for the cuts to the budget. 'My criticism doesn't lie with the Commission. I fully support Mr Potocnik who has done the best he could with what he had,' he said. Instead he had some harsh words for Member States, whom he said were responsible for this deficit in the European research budget. 'Member States should practice what they preach,' he said. 'They say research is a priority but then don't provide sufficient funds.'
'They haven't taken into account the costs of enlargement or the new Lisbon goals,' he added. 'We are all saying that the Lisbon agenda is very important, but in reality Member States are not taking a serious and long-term approach to allocating funds to research.
'Everyone recognises the need for European research because big competitive projects can only take place at this level,' said Mr Busquin.
Something that Europe does not need, however, is a European Technology Institute (EIT), according to Mr Busquin. Initially proposed in 2005 by Commission President José Manuel Barroso as part of the relaunched Lisbon agenda and the ambitious growth and jobs strategy, the institute would be intended to strengthen Europe's knowledge-triangle of research, education and technology transfer. It would do this by providing critical mass and a world-class model for teaching and research, and through partnerships between academia and businesses. Mr Busquin likened the proposed structure to a 'big white elephant' saying, 'Europe already has institutes that conduct technology transfer and we should focus on making the best of what we already have. What we need is to lift the barriers and create a strong network for technology innovation.'
In addition to his work in the ITRE committee, Mr Busquin is kept busy chairing the Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA) committee, a body of the European Parliament which provides expert scientific and technology assessment to parliamentary committees. Composed of MEPs nominated by these committees, the panel works with external high-level experts to produce working papers, and organise thematic lectures and workshops. The committee also offers scholarships to scientists and engineers and others from relevant disciplines for work-experience within STOA.
When taking up the STOA chair in 2004, Mr Busquin was set the task of raising the profile and influence of this small committee. 'In recent times, STOA had lost some of its influence and came under criticism because it dealt with subjects that were perhaps too topical and at times controversial,' he said. The committee has since undergone a reform process to redefine its role and objectives. While underlining the need to carry out work that is relevant to the European Parliament, the new rules state that 'STOA's work will address long to medium term issues and shall be distinct from projects carried by other parliamentary bodies which meet specific sectoral or short term research requirements.'
The new rules have also underlined the need for STOA to better communicate with the Parliament, the scientific community and society at large. 'This is very difficult because STOA is a very small committee and has not yet the resources to properly communicate its work,' said Mr Busquin. 'This work is of very high quality but there's also lot of information and it's sometimes difficult to communicate this information to the right people at the right time.' However some headway has been made, said Mr Busquin, with STOA currently building a network of contacts with other parliamentary assessment bodies through the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Association (EPTA), and with representatives and organisations from the scientific community and society.
The Committee has also re-defined its priority areas, focusing on the areas of energy and transport; information and communication technologies (ICT); space; advanced nanotechnology; health; and research and innovation policy. A series of workshops will kick off in September on issues of importance, such as antibiotic resistance, Galileo applications, the role of nanotechnologies in chemical substitution and intellectual property rights.