Brussels, 06 Oct 2004
Italy is the latest country to publish its contribution to the debate on the future of European research policy, the major feature of which is a clear appeal for the EU not to establish a European Research Council (ERC).
The report produced by the Ministry for Education, Universities and Research outlines the Italian position in relation to particular aspects of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), as well as presenting some general ideas on a strategy for European research.
Setting the scene for later discussions, the report begins by arguing that the rapid development of China, India and other world regions will have a major impact on European research. 'Europe will have to consider not only how to tackle its gap with the United States in terms of knowledge and efficiency, but also the rising competition [...] with a group of emerging and strongly motivated countries.'
Accordingly, Italy argues that Community funding should focus on those actions that will maximise national public and private investment in research, whilst promoting further convergence and a reduction of duplication. 'In that perspective, it is important that the EC should envisage to double the current research budget,' the report adds.
It is on the subject of basic research where the Italian contribution seems most at odds with recent policy statements by the Commission and other Member States. According to the report: '[B]asic research must have clear connections with applied research and thus with innovation, albeit on a long term.'
The ERC proposal is described as 'perplexing' for a number of reasons. First, the report points out that the EU research budget represents only around five per cent of the total invested by Member States in research. Given that the ERC proposes to fund individual research groups, whereas the defining characteristic of Community funding is the promotion of European collaboration, the Italian contribution argues that the ERC proposal would effectively reduce the proportion of EU funds spent on truly European projects.
Second, the report suggests that as curiosity-driven research is generally funded through national programmes, the creation of European fund for basic research could only be justified by demonstrating a clear added value. However, as ERC funding would only be awarded to the top research groups in Europe - and it is likely that these groups would already be recognised and funded at national level - there is little scope for added value, and the move could infringe the subsidiarity of Member States.
Italy concludes, therefore, that EU funding for such activities 'should only concern a small percentage of European research funds.' Furthermore, such limited funds 'do not require the creation of a new body like [the] ERC; this type of funding may be provided in the framework of the NEST [new and emerging science and technology] programme.'
In areas related more specifically to the evolution of the Framework Programme, the Italian contribution contains fewer surprises. As a general statement, the report sates that: 'We share the overall approach outlined by the Commission for FP7, since it promotes research with the use of instruments taking more into account - compared to the past - European innovation and competitiveness needs.'
In terms of the balance of instruments to be applied under the next Framework Programme, Italy argues that Integrated Projects (IPs) and specific targeted research projects (STREPs) were the instruments most appreciated by the scientific community. In many cases, IPs have built relationships and interdependencies capable of establishing lasting links between enterprises and universities, while STREPs proved more flexible and more adaptable to limited solutions. 'We therefore reckon that a larger share of the funding should be assigned to STREPs,' states the report.
The distinction between coordination actions (CAs) and specific support actions (SSAs) is sometimes not clear, according to the Italian contribution, while Networks of Excellence (NoEs) must be improved. 'Partnerships of 35/40 actors very seldom allow to reach a real integration of participant groups,' it argues.
Italy agrees that participation rules for FP7 should be simplified, and it broadly endorses the findings of the Marimon mid-term review of the new instruments, including its proposal for a two-part application process. Other procedural problems highlighted in the report include a poor level of knowledge among some Commission project officers of the new rules on project management, changes to project budgets that demand a fundamental alteration of research priorities, and the amount of time between project approval and signature of the contract.
Finally, the report points out that the participation of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in large scale projects has been problematic. Increased SME participation 'should be realized by providing instruments and objectives in the FP that meets the needs of this enterprise category,' argues the report, for example by increasing the number of IPs specifically tailored for SMEs.
To read the full report, please consult the following web address: