Here's looking at EU

May 4, 2001

The Joint Research Council's new director-general describes its harmonising role to Paul Bompard.

The European Union's Joint Research Centre was founded in 1957 under the Euratom Treaty. It has its headquarters in Brussels, eight research institutes in five European countries, a staff of 2,500 and a 1998-2002 budget of €1.02 billion (£6 million). It originally focused on nuclear issues, but since the 1960s and 1970s, it has turned its attention to health, safety and the coordination and harmonisation of research. But its contemporary role in the EU has come under scrutiny, and the possibility of closing one of its facilities has been mooted.

Irishman Barry McSweeney, ("I'm Dr, but prefer the title 'Barry'") is the JRC's newly appointed director-general. He was previously director of the JRC's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection in Ispra, in northern Italy, and before that, head of the EU's Marie Curie Fellowships.

McSweeney is confident of his organisation's status as the EU's fundamental "in-house" agency for science and research.

"The prime mission of the JRC will not change with a new director. That is to provide science and technology support and advice to European Union policies. That is our mission, the central mission of the JRC. In simplistic terms, we are the in-house scientific advisers to the various directorates-general within the commission, as well as to parliament, council and other European institutions. We work very closely with the various EU scientific committees and, of course, with the research institutes of the member nations.

"We have three core areas: food, chemical products and health make up the first. The second is environment and sustainability. The third is the long-term traditional area that many people still associate with the JRC: nuclear safety and security. This ranges from reactor safety to security systems relating to non-proliferation. This is not going to disappear. There is a tremendous need for the JRC in nuclear. Our nuclear activities are key to us because in the Euratom Treaty we are vested with this responsibility. But this accounts for less than 30 per cent of our work."

In addition, McSweeney adds, there are areas that he describes as "horizontal".

One involves producing reference materials and validated methods that are accepted by researchers across Europe. "In the GMO (genetically modified organisms) field, we have the only reference material in the world. And this is used throughout the world as the basis for standardising GMO methodologies.

"As a scientific organisation, we are tiny, and nearly all the work we do is in association with member-state laboratories. In GMOs, we coordinate the network of member-state laboratories. We also coordinate in the nuclear and environmental areas. We try to ensure that there is consensus and act as managers of international research networks. An important part of our mission is to help the development of, and to become part of, the European Research Area, making sure that the sum is greater than the single parts."

The JRC is developing relations with nations expected to become EU members in the near future. "We are having information days in candidate countries," McSweeney says. "We are really working with them in preparation for the political reality that will be enlargement. We are drawing candidate countries into networking and research. We want to get scientists, in particular the young ones, working with us so they will get training to help them work in the EU. And more generally, we want to encourage mobility within the EU, exchanging staff, particularly young researchers, among JRC facilities and national research institutions. Our interdisciplinary environment is extremely interesting for young scientists. This is part of our need to be flexible and dynamic, the only way not to become obsolete.

"We are also concerned with the role of women. The current situation in the JRC is unsatisfactory, partly because in the past it has been heavily involved in the nuclear and engineering fields. I would like to see an increase in the number of women in science."

The JRC's work involves research and the management and coordination of research in universities and research institutes in member states. But, McSweeney says, "it is impossible to say what percentage of our work is direct research and how much is coordination and management. Our networking is research, and there is a large grey area that is both."

McSweeney believes the JRC has tremendous potential, "because we are neutral, independent of member states, but we are part of the commission. To advise the commission we have to have a wide knowledge base, which can be obtained only by full cooperation with the member states. Under no circumstances will I allow any competition between the JRC and a member-state laboratory. It is the opposite. The JRC is a neutral body that can help produce consensus, that can help bring scientific workers together. But without dictating, because that would be the kiss of death."

The EU will shortly decide on the JRC's budget for 2002-06, and McSweeney has few hopes of an increase. "I'm a realist, and I expect that, at least in real terms, the next budget may be reduced. This means that we must either think up some resource-generating methods or focus even more on certain priorities."

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