Brussels, 29 January 2002
Speaking to CORDIS News, EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin explained why he has decided to make the Descartes prize one of his priorities, and how it fits in with the Commission's proposals for the Sixth Framework programme (FP6)
The Descartes prize was founded in 2000, and annually awards outstanding scientific or technological results from European collaborative research in all fields of scientific endeavour. In 2001 there were two winners, for the development of novel drugs against Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the development of new asymmetric catalysts for chemical manufacturing.
'One of the most important effects of the European research area (ERA) is the increased impact that researchers have when they collaborate beyond national borders. The combining of their complementary expertises results in an abundance of significant scientific accomplishments, that is the key,' Mr Busquin told CORDIS News.
The Commissioner recognises that awarding money is not the most effective method of encouraging researchers to collaborate, but described it as the 'cherry on the cake'.
'It allows us to provide visibility, above all media visibility, to show that it's important [to collaborate]. It's our attempt to try to show that there are European research teams and to demonstrate the interest in working with European teams,' he said.
Researchers should work together in other ways, in integrated projects, in networks of excellence, and by coordinating national research programmes, three new tools proposed for FP6. Mr Busquin described strengthening collaboration as 'key in all my reflections on the framework programmes, to reinforce work and coordination between different laboratories.'
Although recognising that the Descartes prize as 'no Nobel Prize', the Commissioner is nevertheless proud of this initiative, and has even made it one of his priorities. Justifying this decision, Mr Busquin told CORDIS News 'the creation of the Descartes prize in the 'Improving human potential' programme makes exceptional results of cooperation more visible, and gives a positive message to researchers: their efforts are recognised. This scientific excellence is essential if Europe wants to stay competitive, at the top in research.'
Mr Busquin described himself as satisfied with the submissions for the award in 2001, but added 'I'm never entirely satisfied, it's not natural!' He praised the quality of the projects submitted last year, and is noticeably pleased that one of the winning teams included researchers from Russia and Armenia. The Commissioner would have liked to have seen more projects submitted and hoped to see this happen at this year's contest.
Mr Busquin thinks that one of the reasons why more projects were not entered is the lack of information surrounding the prize. He is sure that many in Europe's scientific community do not know about the award, even though some of them may be working on EU projects.
The relatively low media coverage of the awards did not help Mr Busquin in his quest to publicise the initiative, as has also been the case with the EU's annual science weeks, another initiative about which the Commissioner is very enthusiastic.
'I think that the science weeks are a way of touching the larger public. They are also a way to remind politicians of the importance of science. Everyone is focused on a single subject during one week. And it's also a mechanism which demonstrates the importance of studying science,' said Mr Busquin.
The Commissioner explained enthusiastically his experiences from EU Science Week in 2001, describing a focus on Leonardo de Vinci in Italy, Linnaeus in Sweden and a play and game involving British students demonstrating the problems with Darwinism. 'It illustrated the diversity of European science,' said Mr Busquin. 'That's what Europe is, it's the mixture of cultures.'
Mr Busquin is aware that there is a need for more contact with the media, an issue which forms part of the Commission's science and society action plan. 'We have much work to do,' he said, although he admitted to not understanding why the media tends to be disinterested in science. He cited the results of the recent Eurobarometer survey, which showed that the public wish to be more informed about scientific issues.
'I think, even so, it is a piece of work which needs time, and the media works quickly. To prepare a programme on a scientific problem demands certain qualities. One has to be scientifically competent and know how to explain simply at the same time. These qualities are relatively rare. We don't have many scientists who know how to communicate or journalists who work a lot in science, so information risks being incorrect.
The Commissioner went on to say that there are exceptions, such as teachers, but that the main function of researchers is to research, and they do not have intermediaries such as a spokesperson or press offices as is the case with large companies. Mr Busquin described the problem as a 'deficit in human potential', and declared that this should be a priority.
For information on how to enter the Descartes prize competition, please consult the following web address: http://www.cordis.lu/descartes