Janez POTOCNIK European Commissioner for Science and Research Embedding European science into European society Austrian Academy of Sciences

January 23, 2006

Vienna, 20 January 2006

Austrian Academy of Sciences
Vienna, 20 January 2006

Prof. dr. Mang, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to have been invited to address you today. It is a real privilege to be here in this spectacular room - steeped in history and echoing to the voices of some of the true greats of European science: Christian Doppler, Ludwig Boltzmann, Erwin Schrödinger and Konrad Lorenz, to name just a few.

But I am also delighted to be here in Vienna, looking to the future. At the start of the New Year Austria took up the reins of the Council of the European Union and the next six months will be a pivotal moment for the future of European research.

The Commission tabled its proposals for the Seventh Framework programme in 2005. 2006 is now the year for decisions. Can we live up to our ambitions? I am looking forward to working with the Presidency in the coming months. I know that Austria will do its utmost to keep the European decision-making machine running smoothly and efficiently, while seeking the best possible result for Europe.

This evening, I would like to first say a few words about the future of European research policy - where the Austrian Presidency has such an important role to play - and then I would like to focus on the intimate link between science and society at large.

The challenge for European research policy

It has been estimated that the European Union produces almost one third of the world's scientific knowledge. The research and innovation underpinning this knowledge help deliver the prosperity and quality of life our citizens expect.

The EU has acknowledged expertise in medical research and environmental sciences and leads the world in many areas of chemistry, physics, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, telecommunications and transport. Yet the EU is less successful at converting its achievements into commercial technologies. European companies apply for fewer than 170 European and US patents each year per million inhabitants, compared with 400 for American companies.

In fact, in 2002 the EU25 was running a trade deficit in high tech products of €33.7 billion. The EU has been unable to increase its share of this market, while countries such as China have experienced stellar growth.

What is the solution? We Europeans can never compete by being the cheapest, neither at the expense of the environment nor by jeopardising our social welfare. But we can compete on the basis of creativity and ideas.

We must focus on improving the knowledge triangle: the way knowledge is produced through research, diffused through education and used and applied through innovation.

European-level research, and the Framework Programme in particular, is of course central to this strategy. EU research spending has a major economic impact as studies show.

There are two basic factors contributing to the scale of this impact: firstly, the “crowding in” effect which means that participants are willing to invest additional resources of their own because EU projects give access to foreign researchers and research outputs in a way that national funds simply cannot. Secondly, EU projects have large economic multipliers associated with them. The pooling of competencies and resources increases the likelihood of a breakthrough in a given area.

This economic impact demonstrates that public spending on research represents not a cost, but the best possible investment in Europe’s future.

At the start of 2006 we have, for the first time, a coherent approach to building a Europe of knowledge. Never before have political leaders so clearly acknowledged the central contribution of research and innovation for underpinning the European economy, and for improving the wellbeing of European citizens. This is the context in which the European Commission is developing its proposals for the next Framework Programme, and this is why we have targeted a substantially increased budget for FP7.

  • The lion’s share of FP7 expenditure will go towards supporting co-operation in key scientific and technological areas where we want to establish European leadership.
  • The scope is enormous, covering priority themes in health, food, agriculture and biotechnology, information and communication technologies, nano-science, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies, energy, environment and climate change, transport, including aeronautics, socio-economic sciences and the humanities, and security and space.
  • The Ideas Programme will establish a European Research Council, a pan-European mechanism to support investigator-led research. Competition among truly creative scientists, engineers and scholars at the European level, combined with curiosity and thirst for knowledge, are most likely to make the unpredictable and spectacular discoveries that will open up entirely new avenues of technological progress and for tackling social and environmental problems.
  • European science can only be as good as the people carrying it out, and that is why the People programme, will support a range of actions to foster the training and networking of researchers, building on the very positive experience in previous programmes.
  • The Capacities programme will develop the best possible resources and conditions for Europe’s research community. Under this heading we will address research infrastructures, SMEs, the regional dimension, stimulating the research potential in the newest Member States, and the outermost regions, international cooperation, coherent Development of Research Policies, and, last but not least ‘science in society’.
Financial Perspectives

At this point, allow me to say a few words about budget.

As you know, a major step was taken in December when Europe’s leaders finally reached an agreement on the financial perspectives for the period 2007 to 2013.

The protracted negotiations on this highlighted a major problem in the way Member States approach budget negotiations, which many continue to see primarily as a financial mechanism of redistribution. I believe that we cannot define a budget that responds fully to the challenges facing today's Europe, and that best equips us to achieve our political, economic and social objectives, without going beyond this logic of redistribution and the maximisation of net flows.

Having said that, it is my view that the outcome for European research is the best we could have hoped for in these circumstances. Although it fell short of our initial proposals, the Council fully recognised the role of research as one of the most promising and effective drivers of innovation and growth and called for particular priority to be given to delivering a "substantial and progressive enhancement" of the EU's research effort. In accordance with this, a key element of the agreement was the decision that funding for EU research in 2013 should be around 75% higher than in 2006, which should lead to a corresponding level of spending close to €9 billion in 2013.

The European Parliament just two days ago decided to reject the European Council’s agreement, claiming that it does not guarantee a budget for prosperity, competitiveness, solidarity and cohesion. Despite this, the Council, Commission and Parliament will be working intensively in the coming weeks. It is our hope that the outstanding budgetary issues will be resolved as soon as possible, and that the way will then be clear for all the remaining decisions on the 7th Framework Programme to be taken during 2006.

Science and Society

I would now like to turn to the main theme of my talk this evening, and that is the relationship between science and society.

Last year, we conducted a Eurobarometer survey into public perceptions of science and technology. It showed, in general, a high level of interest and optimism in the population as a whole. However, significant numbers of people feel poorly informed. Others associate scientific progress with negative consequences – such as job losses, or the breaching of ethical and moral limits. And, there remains an underlying mistrust of scientists, who, it is feared by some, possess excessive power due their specialised knowledge.

Scientific endeavour is a human activity, influenced by the societal and political environment. At the same time, it has a profound effect on society as a whole. This raises all sorts of worrying questions, but let me list just three:

  • How can decision makers develop robust public policies – for example on energy, the environment, or consumer safety – if an increasingly sceptical population mistrusts governments’ scientific advisers?
  • What is the point of pumping public money into technological development if the fruits of that development are rejected by a concerned public? There is no “invisible hand” that automatically ensures new discoveries are converted into marketable technologies. The story of modern biotechnology illustrates how the economic return on R&D investments cannot be realised without public confidence.
  • And how can citizens make choices over new technologies, or understand risks, if scientific literacy is falling in the population as a whole?
To tackle these questions in a coherent way we need to engage with all other actors, including politicians, consumers, civil society groups, industrialists and the public at large.

The Commission made an important step in this direction at the start of the Sixth Framework Programme, where, with a relatively modest budget of €80 million, we launched the programme theme “Science and Society”. This funding strand has supported a range of catalytic actions, each designed in different ways to bring science and society just a little bit closer.

For example:

  • Patient groups and other concerned individuals have been given a clear voice alongside scientists, policy makers, civil society and the general public in various science and society debates - such as on genetic testing and on brain science. These are not occasions for scientists to lecture a supposedly ignorant public, but instead the spirit is one of mutual understanding and mutual learning.
  • Networks of national officials and specialists meet regularly to exchange information and good practices, and to set up common guidelines and objectives. In the area of “women and science” for example, common statistical frameworks which allow increased comparability have been established, and targets for women in decision-making positions related to research have been developed.
Looking now to the 7th Framework Programme, we have proposed a substantial expansion of ‘Science in Society’ and an increased budget to match. This will add to the leverage effect of the whole Framework Programme: Why is this?

1) A better informed and more engaged public can be more at ease with science and technology. There will still be controversies, of course, but we should aim for real debate rather than ‘dialogues of the deaf’! In my view, a transparent culture of explanation, consultation and dialogue is a simple matter of democratic accountability.

2) ‘Science in society’ will also lead to better EU policies in general, by promoting more efficient use of scientific advice and by encouraging open and structured interaction between experts, civil society, policy-makers and other stakeholders.

3) Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, societal debate can also lead to better science. Concerned stakeholders can raise new questions and open up unexpected research avenues.

If we get it right, it is a win-win strategy for us all!

Here I would like to outline some of the new features we intend to introduce:

  • In certain cases we will help civil society groups (not-for profit NGOs) to “outsource” research to universities and other research performers. The goal is to broaden the debate on key issues of public policy by exploring hitherto unexamined problems and by enriching the evidence base.
  • We realise that activities to strengthen the relations between researchers and other stakeholders in society need to be underpinned by sound knowledge. Therefore, for the first time we will support multi-disciplinary ‘Science in Society’ research on the relationships between science, democracy and law, on ethics in science and technology, on the reciprocal influence of science and culture, on the role and the image of scientists, on gender aspects or on science education methods.
  • We also intend to step-up quite dramatically our efforts in communicating science to the broader public. This will mean forging closer links with both the audio-visual media and the press. Rather than be satisfied with science-related stories appearing in the second half of our popular daily newspapers – I would like to see them (at least once in a while!) on the front page.
  • Finally, we want to encourage Member States to cooperate at both practical and policy levels in the area of Science in Society. Countries which are somehow more ‘advanced’ can inspire others. In this regard, I would like to applaud the excellent ‘Gallery of Research’ initiative, here under the auspices of the Austrian Academy.
Science education and the Charter for Researchers

There is another key dimension that must not be forgotten, and that is the human factor.

There can be no research without researchers. And there can be no researchers without young boys and girls choosing scientific subjects in their final school years, and opting for scientific disciplines at university. We therefore need a two-pronged approach:

  • We must first trigger the curiosity of young people. In the ‘Science in Society’ theme we will promote a range of initiatives to improve science teaching in schools with the aim of inspiring future generations of scientists, and of smoothing the transition from science education to scientific research.
  • We also need to make the prospect of a research career as attractive as possible. I am convinced that if researchers are provided with a fair professional environment with good career prospects, then it will be more attractive to stay in, come to, or return to Europe, and thereby contribute to realising Europe’s knowledge society. What’s more, the researchers’ role and contribution to society and to citizens’ welfare needs to be better recognised. More must be done to make researchers and their activities less obscure, to entice more people to this fascinating profession.
These and other ideas were encapsulated in the Recommendation on the European Charter for Researchers and on the Code of Conduct for their Recruitment, adopted by the Commission last April. It has had a very large impact on the European university system, research councils and other agencies.

I am delighted that the Austrian Conference of University Rectors has decided to formally adopt the charter and code of conduct in just a few day’s time. What’s more, a major European conference will be staged here in Vienna at the beginning of June, with the specific aim of examining how the charter and code can be further used to promote career opportunities and new jobs in European research. I look forward to taking part in this event.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen,

Science should not live in an ivory tower. Ivory towers are now an architectural rarity. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that scientific endeavour is more and more embedded in the wider society.

We cannot tolerate a sort of scientific divide in our society, separating those who do not have access to relevant scientific information from those that do; those who do not have the capacity to influence decision-making, from those who do.

In many ways the Academies of Science are at the front line in this respect. You can play a role building on its historic tradition of leading excellence and providing first class scientists. You can help in attracting young people to science, improving public awareness of the importance of science and providing well-founded and timely scientific opinions in support of our societal issues and concerns.

I’m sure the great Austrian philosophers of the last century would have supported us! The sociologist Otto Neurath said: “As soon as citizens have access to a common culture, and we bridge the gap that keeps illiterates separate from the educated, life will be more deeply understood and more fully embraced”.

That’s not a bad ambition, and as Commissioner for research, I intend to pursue it with vigour.

Thank you for your attention.

Item source: SPEECH/06/21 Date: 20/01/2006 Previous Item Back to Titles Print Item

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