Brussels, 01 Jul 2004
The debate on the future of European research policy was opened on 16 June with the publication of a Commission communication on this very issue. Speaking to CORDIS News on 30 June, Director-General of the European Commission's Research DG, Achilleas Mitsos, said that he expects at least three debates in the coming months.
The first debate is with the European ministries of finance, who will have to reach a decision on the EU's Financial Perspectives for the period 2007 until 2013. The Commission is hoping for endorsement for its proposal to double the research budget to around 30 billion euro.
'A separate and different discourse is with the ministries of science,' said Dr Mitsos. 'We will have an open debate, and we hope to convince them that the ideas in our communication are the appropriate ones for building the future of research in Europe.' A similar debate will take place with the scientific community.
The outcome of the first debate (with finance ministries) is likely to affect the extent to which the Commission is successful in implementing the ideas central to the second debate. Additional money is necessary because the Commission wishes to do new things. 'European technological initiatives' and a European Research Council are two new initiatives outlined in the Commission's proposal, and would require funding from the budget for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Investment Fund (EIF) and the Structural Funds is also a possibility, but the Commission money set aside for research funding will still have to stretch further than before.
As a result, the share of the total budget that is available for collaborative research, on which the Commission's framework programmes have traditionally focused, will be reduced. 'Our thesis is that funding for this part [collaborative research] should not increase, or at least not increase substantially,' said Dr Mitsos. 'Why? Because we think that collaborative research, that is collaboration between institutes from different countries on the basis of themes and priorities decided by policy makers, has been extremely useful, but has limits.'
In some of the new activities proposed by the Commission, policy makers would therefore step back from setting the research agenda, and, by consequence, from the implementation. 'We have to distinguish between who defines the priorities for the research agenda,' said Dr Mitsos. 'If the research agenda is defined by policy makers, then the Commission must continue to play an important role,' he explained. This would likely be the case for collaborative research. 'If, on the other hand, the research agenda is set, as we propose, by the scientific community, the European Research Council, or by industry and users in the case of technology platforms, then the Commission is a facilitator. It is not a main actor. [...] We don't need to get involved in the way everything is being implemented because we have nothing to offer for the implementation.'
Being completely autonomous, the European Research Council would therefore be responsible for setting the research agenda, deciding how evaluation should be conducted and how scientific excellence, the criteria for funding, should be defined. 'The Commission must have no role to play whatsoever in how these things are conducted,' said Dr Mitsos.
The issue of how the Commission can guarantee to both taxpayers and governments alike that their money is being used appropriately if it is not controlling imbursements is described as a 'key question' by Dr Mitsos. 'It depends very much on the selection of the persons who are going to give credibility assurance, that their objective is the future of science in Europe and nothing else. This is not simple.' But, as Dr Mitsos made clear, this is how research councils operate at a national level. 'When the UK asks the research council to administer a budget on life sciences, the research council is an intermediary between government and researchers. The government trusts this council. How and why? Well, because the selection of the persons and the procedures that are installed are such that they can provide these guarantees.'
Dr Mitsos says that it is too early to know whether the proposal for a European Research Council is welcomed by all EU Member States. He recognises that some people are hesitant, but regards this as a fear of things new: 'I know that people are afraid that it's new and new things suit those who can cope with everything, meaning the bigger countries. That could be true to a certain extent, but I don't believe [the ERC] favours some countries a priori over others.'
The Commission also appeared to take time to accept this novel proposal, although Dr Mitsos denies that there was a change of thinking on the ERC. 'It's new and the Commission is not known for always accepting new ideas immediately. Personally, I, and the Commissioner as well, have made very positive statements on the ERC from the very beginning,' said Dr Mitsos. What the Commission was keen to do, however, was to define the needs of the scientific community, and then to make the solution fit, rather than setting up an ERC and then deciding afterwards what it should do.
The role of technology platforms is already clear. Several have already been set up, bringing together companies, research institutions, the financial world and regulatory authorities at the European level to define a common research agenda. When it comes to implementing this agenda, the Commission is flexible. While Integrated Projects may be sufficient in some scenarios, 'joint technology initiatives' may be necessary in others. These would take the form of a joint undertaking, and would be based on Article 171 of the Treaty. It is here that funding from the EIB, the EIF and the Structural Funds could play a role.
'Generalisations are very dangerous here. Different sectors, different industries require completely different things. And don't get me wrong - we have never said, and we should never give the impression of saying, that all technology platforms or technology initiatives will have to use Article 171. We may well have, in the end, more classical ways of intervening. But we may also need some joint undertakings. We must be open, and this will become more concrete during the next months,' Dr Mitsos told CORDIS News.
The Director-General is positive about these debates, which are now beginning to unfold. The Commission's proposals have been received well by the scientific community, he says. As for the financial debate, 'I would not say I am confident, but if I had to gamble, I would gamble that we are going to have a very, very substantial increase,' he said.
'I think that more and more people now accept the need for the European Union to invest in the future, and investing in the future means investing in research,' said Dr Mitsos. 'What is even more encouraging is that the same countries that have restricted views on the future of the EU budget are the ones who see more than anybody else the importance of EU involvement in research,' he added.
Discussions on FP7 will, however, be far from over once budgetary and structural issues are settled. Early next year, the Commission will publish its detailed proposals for FP7, and the debate on which research fields should receive EU funding will recommence.