E4 billion is enabling researchers to work more closely with industry. Kam Patel reports
Ministers from 26 countries have agreed to launch a raft of new projects worth nearly E4 billion (Pounds 2.6 billlion) under Eureka, Europe's flagship programme for industrial research.
The initiative includes 153 new research projects worth E310 million. These projects are conventional in nature and designed to solve specific problems. In addition three "cluster" programmes, worth E3.5 billion, are being launched in the fields of agro-technology, information systems and communications technology.
These cluster programmes have a more strategic objective, with companies in the sectors collaborating to develop generic technologies and skills to help boost the competitiveness of their industry across Europe.
British firms, universities and research establishments are heavily involved in several projects. Leeds University's school of textiles is one of the partners for a project that aims to produce an ideal suture material that can be used in all surgical applications.
At present surgeons have to choose from a range of sutures to cope with the many different surgical procedures and wound types. By studying in detail the elastic and mechanical properties of suture, researchers hope to develop a material that is able to meet the needs of all procedures and wounds and so take the guesswork out of the selection process. The Leeds researchers will be collaborating with Turkish and British firms on the project.
Researchers at Cranfield's environmental and ordnance systems department meanwhile will be working with optoelectronics researchers in Romania to develop a laser microscope to clean fine art objects. The work is expected to benefit specialists in conservation and restoration but could also find application in biochemistry laboratories, microelectronics research and medicine.
The British Antarctic Survey is one of the partners on a project that aims to develop a system for fishery forecasting and fishery management by remote sensing. The work has been inspired by pioneering research by the BAS on the relationship between exploited marine species and the oceanographic environment.
It is envisaged that in the near future it will be possible to use satellite data to make short-term predictions of areas where open sea fish populations are likely to be high and long-term predictions on the recovery in numbers of short-lived species.
Other project partners include a commercial fishing association in Spain and the Falkland Islands government fisheries department, which is particularly interested in long-term forecasting of squid populations.
The project will involve collecting environmental data by remote sensors and the gathering of fishery, biological and oceanographic data by scientific observers on board commercial vessels.
Among the cluster projects, the largest is the Information Technology for European Advancement programme. The eight-year project, which will eventually cost E3.2 billion, will focus on the development of software and software engineering competencies.
The Eureka secretariat says the initiative aims to help Europe's IT firms close their "software gap" with other countries, particularly the United States.
It adds: "Reversing this trend is of vital importance for the development of the entire European industry because of the strategic importance of software as a raw material and its role in mastering the complex capabilities of digital systems. Software is the key to extending the capabilities of hardware and determines a major part of added value of products and systems."
The ITEA project is led by nine leading European IT and electronics companies including Alcatel, Bosch, Nokia, Philips and Siemens.