Brussels, 07 Apr 2004
Policy makers, scientists and stakeholders from across Europe gathered at the European Parliament in Brussels on 6 April for the first day of the European Science Congress, organised on the initiative of the Parliament's Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy (ITRE).
The issue facing participants at the Congress was how to promote scientific research in Europe in the context of the EU's Lisbon objective of becoming the world's most competitive economy by 2010. The first afternoon's discussions focussed on Europe's current performance to date.
In his introduction to the event, Commission President Romano Prodi told delegates: 'Four years ago we pledged to achieve the Lisbon objectives together but, to be honest, we haven't reached our goals. In Barcelona in 2002, we said we needed to invest three per cent of European GDP in research by 2010 - a goal we can still reach - but today, in 2004, we're actually further away. This is not the best way to fulfil a challenge.'
Mr Prodi urged Europe's policymakers to be brave enough to take the necessary decisions and to take risks. 'If we take no risks, we guarantee mediocrity,' he said. One of the great strengths of the US is that it has learned to be 'big enough to fail,' whereas the EU often spent too long in discussion and avoided taking any risky decisions, he added.
Mr Prodi highlighted two interlinked areas in particular where Europe needs to improve its efforts: integration and mobility. He argued that Europe needs a continent wide system of research, with research centres and universities forming centres of excellence within an integrated research area.
Further integration is also needed to encourage researcher mobility, according to the Commission President: 'Today, if a researcher goes abroad they do it at their own risk, as careers are often still linked to national systems. We shouldn't penalise researchers for expanding their horizons.' The movement of researchers between the public and private sectors is also necessary to stimulate industrial investments in science, he added.
The movement of researchers was also a major theme in a speech by Irish Minister for education and science, Noel Dempsey, representing the current EU Presidency. However, what concerned Mr Dempsey most was the fact that around 400,000 of Europe's best researchers are currently based in the US.
'I don't want to be misunderstood here,' said Mr Dempsey 'mobility is an important factor in the acquisition of knowledge, but we mustn't confuse mobility with brain drain. Only one in ten of those researchers will choose to return to Europe, and that says a lot about the state of our research base.'
The minister warned against a sense of fatalism, however, and pointed to the advances made in his own country in the last decade. Ireland's progress in the field of research was built on financing decisions based solely on scientific excellence and competitiveness, he said, which in turn had forced research institutions and universities to focus on the same principles.
The chief executive of the European Science Foundation, Professor Bertil Andersson, also saw signs of encouragement for Europe. While it is true that no European university currently appears in the top ten list of Nobel Prize winning institutions in the last 15 years, the fact that many on the list are relative newcomers should give Europe hope that the situation can be turned around, he argued.
Professor Andersson proposed a European research environment based on five pillars: a European research competition ('a kind of Champions League for the best scientists'), infrastructure and mobility, technology platforms, networks of excellence, and coordination of national activities. Such a structure, he believes, will provide a better balance between basic and applied research and innovation than exists today.
During his intervention the Vice President of the European Parliament, Professor Alejo Vidal-Quadras, said that he hoped the European Science Congress would instil an even greater sense of urgency in Europe's policy makers in the run up to the European elections.
Professor Vidal-Quadras paid tribute to the achievements of Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, who he said had 'driven forward the concept of a European Research Area with great energy and success.'
And Professor Vidal-Quadras relayed a final message to the Congress from the French Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Professor Jean-Marie Lehn: 'What I can add is that it is absolutely vital for the EU to support more and stronger science and basic research. [...] Now is, more than ever, a time to replace incantation with action.'
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