Brussels, 30 Nov 2004
In its recent communication on the future of research policy in Europe, the European Commission outlined support for research infrastructures as one of the six pillars of its policy from 2007. In an interview with CORDIS News, Head of Unit for Research Infrastructures Hervé Péro explained how the Commission intends to turn the theory into practice.
'In order to face societal and industrial challenges, scientists need to have facilities that have the capacity to generate the relevant data to increase knowledge and develop models,' said Mr Péro.
'As problems become more complex, we need to go more from the infinitely small to the infinitely big, using powerful instruments such as particle accelerators and telescopes,' he added. We need new tools to explore the unknown, more consistent databases to better understand the evolution of society and more powerful computing systems to help researchers understanding the evolution of the climate.
The renewed emphasis on research infrastructures is based on four principal assessments, according to Mr Péro: the key role of research infrastructures in the generation of knowledge; the need to give Europe the necessary means to act at a global level and to keep up with the Lisbon agenda; the need to increase cooperation to stimulate cost sharing and create an economy of scale with regard to research infrastructures; and the necessity of using public funds efficiently.
Speaking of the cost of research infrastructures, Mr Péro gave two reasons for encouraging collaboration through EU funding. The cost of building a very large facility, such as a linear collider, can amount to several billion euro, and cannot, therefore, be met by one country acting alone. For other purposes, such as oceanographic vessels or research laboratories in the Arctic, less expensive facilities can be met by national budgets, but a reduction of fragmentation in research infrastructure would lead to large economies of scale, he explained.
Politically, an EU strategy for research infrastructure would lead to Europe acting better at world level - 'able to sit at the same table as other large regions in the world'. And also able to provide solutions to problems at global level, relating to the environment, security, immigration and space, for example, added Mr Péro.
In an October working document on research infrastructures in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the Commission outlined how support for research infrastructure is likely to be divided into two lines of action, one optimising the use and performance of existing facilities, and one supporting the development of new infrastructures.
Support for existing infrastructures will be based on current activities in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). This mainly bottom-up approach will support the continuation of schemes to fund access to research infrastructures, integrating activities, the development of a communication network and design studies for new infrastructures.
New infrastructures will be the focus of a more strategic approach based on a global common vision, a roadmap and identified priority projects. The roadmap will be prepared with the support of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), and its first version will be available in 2005. The second component of the approach, the implementation of the priority projects, will comprise an operational mechanism based on various complementary financial instruments.
The FP6 budget for research infrastructures is 730 million euro, a figure that Mr Péro says should be largely increased for FP7. This will help strengthen current activities and support the emergence of new infrastructures. For new infrastructures, not all funding will come direct from the framework programme. An alternative source of funding is the Commission's Structural Funds, while instruments such as Article 169 (which enables the EU to participate in national programmes), and Article 171, (the public-private partnership employed for the Galileo project), could also be employed.
'One size doesn't fit all. Every case is different,' said Mr Péro. He emphasised that the Member States and regions will continue to play a principal role in infrastructure funding, and that EU money will be intended primarily as a catalyst. EU funding will be used to facilitate the emergence - or to facilitate the management - of key projects, explained Mr Péro.
Although EU funding for new infrastructure is likely to be higher than the current ten per cent level, the Commission's role will not be to meet the full costs of new infrastructures, Mr Péro underlined: 'As I have said before, if it is for money that you come, you are knocking at the wrong door. Collaboration will be such an added value that they will get their return many times over in the years to come.'
Asked whether he is confident of seeing the European actions increase in the near future, Mr Péro referred to statements by ministers in the Competitiveness Council affirming the importance of research infrastructures. He recognises that the final decision rests with finance ministries, but said 'I hope that the Member States and their finance ministries will recognise that investment in the highways of knowledge is as important as investing in high speed trains and roads.'
Mr Péro retains his confidence in common infrastructure projects, despite the well-documented problems besetting a very high profile international project, the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER). The EU is one of six partners in the project, which has been significantly delayed by disagreement between the countries involved on where the reactor should be built. Mr Péro admitted that the options, risks and money involved in this ten billion euro project have required courage and commitment, and that this has sometimes been difficult. However, new projects supported under FP7 will not be as large as ITER. In addition, it will be proposed that the management of a project (including the formal commitment of the major stakeholders) will be assessed before the Commission agrees to fund an initiative.
Mr Péro concluded by emphasising that 'the time needed to develop a common vision cannot be measured in months, but years.' The policy will go way beyond FP7, and will involve consensus building and a consistent mix of different projects that should satisfy all stakeholders.
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