Europe's asset is a diversity of small markets

December 17, 1999

After the most gruelling confirmation hearings of any European commissioner, Philippe Busquin is set to be an energetic and reforming holder of the research portfolio (page 24).

His list of priorities is long. Sharpening the management of the European Union's research programmes is the first. This will not win him any glory but is essential both in its own right and to underpin the rest of his plans.

Busquin's big idea, a harmonised European research area in which people, ideas and money can flow seamlessly, will take time and care. Japan's cultural homogeneity stood that country in good stead during the postwar era of mass consumption. In the new century, social and technical change will make smaller, more diverse markets viable and dynamic. And as megacorporations downsize, small companies create jobs. The European linguistic and cultural diversity to which Busquin points is an asset. Harmonisation should work with regional differences rather than threatening them.

Recognition of diversity should also apply to the commission's dealings with other European organisations, member states and the wide range of multinational science centres in Europe, many of which extend beyond the EU. The commission may reasonably aim to ensure that European needs are taken into account when national facilities are planned. It should not try to subordinate them to a commission research plan. In areas such as food safety, excellence rather than fashion must be the criterion it uses for research funding decisions (back page). Mr Busquin's budget, 4 per cent of all research spending in the EU, gives quite sufficient gearing.

Mr Busquin is right, too, to say that research is about more than economic success. In the United Kingdom, years of attempts to enhance the public understanding of science have yet to produce sophisticated public debate on controversial technical issues. In this field all European citizens have similar needs. The commission can raise standards by insisting on high-quality public communication of the research it funds. Much of the work of the commission's own Joint Research Centre is in areas such as information security, food safety and nuclear risk, all subjects of acute public concern.

The centre's future is undecided. But it is to be hoped that its remit as the commission's source of technical advice will be enhanced even if its research is cut back. European decisions are important and it is vital for them to be well-informed.

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