Brussels, 28 Mar 2003
While research consortia across Europe keenly await the result of the first calls for proposals under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), another group of individuals, the national contact points, are also anxious to know the outcome.
As the key sources of information regarding the Community's research framework programmes within the EU and accession states, the national contact points (NCPs) have been more affected than most by the changes to FP6.
CORDIS News spoke to two NCP coordinators for FP6, one from Finland and one from Slovenia, in order to find out more about their roles, the challenges they face, and their thoughts on FP6 and its new instruments.
Mai Tolonen is the coordinator for the NCP system in Finland, and describes FP6 as a new and very interesting concept. The contribution of FP6 towards creating a European Research Area (ERA) is of particular interest, she says, especially the central idea of increased coordination of EU and national research programmes.
The concept of coordination is not a new one for Finnish NCPs. Since 1992, contact points have worked either within Tekes, the national technology agency, or the Academy of Finland, the national research council. In order to maximise their coverage and ensure that opportunities are not missed, each priority area has a primary and secondary NCP, one in each of the two organisations. Furthermore, every contact point is involved with national programmes as well as their EU activities, enabling them to avoid duplication, a structure closely mirroring the ERA concept.
When asked about the general reaction to the changes in the framework programme, Ms Tolonen said: 'Initially there was some fear, especially with regard to the new instruments, and there are still some concerns for example, regarding the participation of SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises].'
The NCPs role in ensuring the participation of SMEs in integrated projects and the traditional instruments, says Ms Tolonen, lies in the national networking of small and large companies, and in being able to identify high quality partners from other countries with which to form consortia.
Finland has also introduced a system of 'preparation funding', which gives companies the necessary support to conceive and apply for EU projects - a welcome boost for larger companies who are potential consortium coordinators, but vitally important for SMEs with fewer resources to devote to research projects.
Ms Tolonen says that she and her colleagues are generally very optimistic about FP6 and the level of Finnish participation. On the kinds of support they would like to receive to improve levels of participation further, Ms Tolonen says: 'The international networking of NCPs within the different participating countries is evidently more of a priority under FP6 - the Commission has made efforts in this area and we'd like to see them drive further initiatives.'
Receiving helpful data on Finland's performance would also be a great benefit: 'By having detailed information on Finnish participation we could measure how well we're doing and where we need to improve. The Commission does communicate certain figures, but often not in the most user friendly form. Examples of best practice from other countries would also be very useful,' she said.
As one of the ten acceding countries to the EU, Slovenia is a full and equal partner under FP6, and the country's NCP coordinator for FP6, Albin Babic, is keen to see it play an important role.
For Mr Babic, despite something of a rush to get to grips with the financial modalities, Slovenian participation in the calls for proposal was encouraging, and he expects the effort to be reflected in the final result.
The real focus of the Slovenian NCP network has been the raising of awareness surrounding the framework programme. As Mr Babic explains: 'We are trying to popularise FP6, and move away from answering questions like 'what is the framework programme?' towards a more in depth understanding of the processes and structure.'
In order to promote such an understanding, Slovenia's NCPs have already organised over 40 presentations on FP6 and its specific priorities. The typical participants are researchers from universities and other institutions, says Mr Babic, but business organisations and SME representatives have been particularly targeted in order to reach a wider audience.
The NCPs themselves are based either within the Ministry for Education, Science and Sport or the Ministry of Economy, but there is a coordination committee with representatives from other ministries to ensure that every department is informed about the opportunities for research collaboration that exist in their area.
Initiatives to maximise national participation include a regular e-mail bulletin of research opportunities to over 10,000 potential contractors, a website in Slovenian and English - for international collaborators - which includes a partner search function, and a scheme to partner SMEs with research institutes with experience of participating in previous framework programmes.
Slovenia also sees a wider role for itself within FP6, and has established special contacts with countries such as Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro in order to promote their participation. 'We are in a unique position to lead such an initiative due to our good contacts in the region and our cultural and linguistic ties, and we think it important to contribute to creating stability,' said Mr Babic.
The NCPs are also involved in a partnership with countries in the Alps and Adriatic regions to organise joint brokerage events in order to identify opportunities for collaboration. Along with joint members Austria and Italy and observer nations Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is helping to promote the kind of international cooperation which it sees as key to success under FP6.
Both Ms Tolonen and Mr Babic say that they will now have to wait for the results of the first calls for proposals to see just how effective their efforts have been, and identify areas for future action. There is one objective, however, that Mr Babic at least feels he's well on the way towards achieving: 'I haven't been asked 'what is FP6?' for quite some time,' he said.