EU learns a vital lesson from BSE

November 2, 2001

Alan Osborn reports on the fight for slices of the Sixth Framework cake.

The European Commission has proposed significant changes to the European Union's Sixth Framework research programme, aimed at securing cash to fund research into subject areas not yet identified.

The money should ensure that the EU has the resources to tackle a challenge that can appear without warning - clearly the lesson of the BSE outbreak has been taken to heart. But there is also a recognition that science itself can advance in unpredictable ways.

"We are talking about a programme that runs up to 2006, and we're not sure we can foresee what will come up in terms of scientific knowledge in that time," says Andrea Dahmen, spokesperson for research commissioner Philippe Busquin.

A sum of €440 million (£0 million) has been set aside for this purpose, along with a similar sum to cover more focused research efforts in food safety, agriculture and possibly energy, where Brussels knows research will be needed but not the form it will take.

A third area covers precise and concrete commitments in the framework programme in genomics and biotechnology. The new strategy involves the commitment of €880 million that was previously held under the heading of "Anticipating the EU's scientific and technological needs", but had not been allocated in any specific way.

Other programmes listed under this broad title, including the Joint Research Centre, specific activities for small and medium-sized enterprises and international cooperation activities, will now be funded under separate programmes.

Ms Dahmen told The THES that while the commission had "re-worked the division of money, the overall figure for the programme has not been changed".

There may be more such re-working to come. The European Parliament's research committee said last month that while it accepted the figure of €16. billion for the four-year programme, members had proposed so many amendments that a special committee had to be convened.

Many of these amendments concern matters of terminology. Others, such as a call for more money to be spent on nuclear fusion, are more serious and could undermine research in areas the commission considers more important, such as genomics.

Whatever the parliament decides this month, the final version will have to be approved by EU ministers. The process should last well into next year.

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