Euro research boss defends central lab

October 17, 2003

As the debate rages over the future of research funding in British universities, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre has come under attack from those who believe its budget could be better spent by individual European institutions.

Critics include the House of Commons science committee, which recently published a report casting doubt on whether the commission needed its own laboratories.

Director-general of the JRC, Barry McSweeney, defended the centre's role in providing the European Union with essential scientific research.

"Three years ago," Mr McSweeney said, "the closure of the JRC was only a matter of timing. When I was offered the post of director-general, my main fear was that I was being hired to shut the place. Now we are involved in new research such as modelling Iraq's energy requirements, developing scenarios for bioterrorism and its prevention in Europe, and seeing whether Europe's banks have enough capital."

The Irish biochemist is the European Commission's principal scientific adviser and, as a commission director-general, is only one rung below the commissioners at the centre of the Brussels machine.

But unlike the scientific advisers found in British government departments, he has research muscle to support the advice he gives. As director of the commission's JRC, he is in charge of 1,600 staff at seven research centres in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

Mr McSweeney is adamant that the JRC is well worth its annual budget of almost e300 million (£210 million).

In the past, he said, the JRC did "excellent science that nobody wanted".

But after a review carried out by Etienne Davignon, former vice-president of the commission, it was restructured to provide science advice to the commission and to other parts of the EU machine, including the European Parliament.

Mr McSweeney said that as well as providing the EU with good science, the JRC supported its wider policy aims, for example, by involving scientists from future member states in its work and by training inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He also argued that a central science laboratory levelled the playing field for smaller nations and contributed to the objective of a single European Research Area.

He said that the JRC's work had never been more relevant. Agriculture was becoming a bigger concern and the JRC was working on methods for detecting genetically modified organisms as well as using satellites to spot illicit fishing and crop production.

Mr McSweeney's own scientific enthusiasms were at the borders between health and the environment, he said. Given these highly political interests, it is fortunate that he does not mind who he annoys in the course of telling the truth as he sees it.

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