EESC Opinion: Basic Research

March 8, 2004

Brussels, 26 February 2004

OPINION of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission entitled "Europe and Basic Research" COM(2004) 9 final
Full text of Opinion in MS Word file on ESC website

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General comments

The EESC expressly welcomes the Commission's Communication and the observations and planned measures set out in this Communication. In giving its endorsement to the Commission's Communication, the EESC would also draw attention to its recent opinions on R&D in which it has drawn attention time and again to the need, in the light of the objectives set at the Lisbon European Council, for the EU to promote basic research adequately - i.e. much more than it has done hitherto.

The EESC supports, in particular, the Commission's call for the research budget of the EU to be substantially boosted. In so doing it would especially refer to its opinion on the Commission's proposal for the Sixth R&D Framework Programme and its recommendation that the overall R&D budget of the EU be increased by 50% in the medium term (with reference to the budget of EU-15). The EESC also supports the Commission's intention to follow the recommendations of the Mayor Group and to make increased support for basic research one of the focal points of the EU's future research measures. In this context, the EESC would draw attention to the alarming indicators produced by the Commission which show that the gulf between the EU and, for example, the USA in the scientific and research fields is even still expanding.

The EESC also endorses the initial observations on the establishment of a "European Scientific Council", which could assume responsibility at EU level for the tasks carried out at Member-State level by bodies such as the Research Councils in the UK, the "Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft" (German Research Council) in Germany, the "Vetenskapsradet" (Science Council) in Sweden, the NWO in the Netherlands, the FRNS in Belgium, etc. These bodies provide, on request, funding for projects or grants to projects carried out by individual research teams, as in the USA.

The EESC agrees with the Commission that it is hardly possible to define strict criteria for drawing a distinction between basic research and applied research. The EESC does not, however, see this as a problem (and therefore recommends that a degree of discretion be authorised at a practical level), as there is, and should be, fruitful interaction and even collaboration between these two categories of research.

The EESC draws attention to the recommendation which it made in an earlier opinion that the interplay between fundamental and applied research in a diverse multi-polar scientific system be strengthened.

In the EESC's view, there is, however, a need, as part of the further action in this field, for the Commission to define the term "basic research" (or propose a definition of the term) in such a way that the definition provides a sufficiently practical basis for taking decisions on aid applications. In this context, the EESC draws attention to the definition which it recommended in an earlier opinion.

In its Communication, the Commission also addresses the highly complex issue of intellectual property rights in connection with basic research. It is a well-known fact that discoveries are not patentable, whereas inventions are. As there is a need for research workers to publish their findings without delay (see below), with a view, inter alia, to enabling knowledge to be disseminated, they thus face a conflict.

This conflict derives from the question which arises when discoveries are made, namely whether the discovery in question could not lead to an application which should be patented; in that case, a patent application would clearly have to be made before the findings in question were published. As a result of this conflict, either the dissemination of knowledge and, thus scientific reputation suffers or potential patent protection for new, and possibly pioneering, ideas is lost, to the detriment of the EU and inventors.

This conflict could be considerably eased by introducing a so-called "grace period". The EESC therefore reiterates the recommendation which it has made on numerous earlier occasions that the "grace period", which is customary in the USA, also be introduced in the EU. The EESC also takes the opportunity to re-emphasise the need to introduce a European Community patent. This would remove a serious handicap for EU businesses and researchers.

Furthermore, the EESC wonders how and whether the promotion of basic research (with a view to meeting the Lisbon objectives) could be explicitly enshrined in future EU treaties or decisions.

Conclusion

The EESC strongly supports the Commission in its goal of ensuring that basic research receives appropriate and systematic support at EU level too, and of making available, to this end, an adequate budget and suitable, "lean" administrative instruments. The EESC recommends that the Commission implement its planned "Next steps" and, in so doing, take account of the abovementioned observations and detailed recommendations.

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European Economic and Social Committee

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