Brussels, 16 Nov 2005
The outgoing Director General of the Commission's Research DG, Achilleas Mitsos, has expressed his optimism that an agreement on the EU's Financial Perspectives can be reached under the current UK Presidency.
In his closing address to the Communicating European Research conference in Brussels on 15 November, Dr Mitsos pointed out that for the first time in the history of the EU, all of the European institutions - the Commission, Parliament and Council - are ambitious and optimistic about the future of research. 'It may not seem like it with the ongoing debate surrounding the Financial Perspectives, but they are.'
Dr Mitsos remains realistic about the final outcome of the EU's budget debate, however. 'I don't think we are going to have a doubling of the budget, but we will have significantly more than in the past, which will allow us to do a lot more than in the past.'
In particular, the Director General highlighted the establishment of a European Research Council (ERC) as a major development in EU support for research. An increased budget will also enable the EU to give greater support to research infrastructure in Europe, he added.
However, it is the ongoing process of trying to simplify the rules governing the EU's research framework programme that Dr Mitsos described as 'the most complex adventure I have ever undertaken'. This isn't because EU officials like complication, despite what some would like to believe, he said, but because at present the system doesn't 'trust' researchers sufficiently. 'We need better and more trust between researchers an EU officials,' said Dr Mitsos.
One member of the audience asked whether, in light of the EU's Lisbon goal of becoming the world's most competitive economy by 2010, requesting a doubling of the budget might not be seen as over-cautious. Dr Mitsos responded by arguing that the aim is not to centralise research spending and policy in Brussels, and that the bulk of research must be funded at national level by the public and private sector. 'And you might call a doubling of the budget cautious, but it is already too much for some Member States,' he pointed out.
Another delegate questioned the Commission's record on involving small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). 'It's strange, but FP6 may actually achieve it's 15 per cent target for SME participation - strange because I agree that we haven't maximised the potential of SMEs under the current programme. Perhaps the biggest failure of FP6, although it certainly wasn't intentional, was giving the impression that large is best,' said Mr Mitsos, referring to the challenges faced by smaller research actors wishing to get involved in large-scale Networks of Excellence and Integrated Projects.
A representative of the social sciences was present in the audience, and whilst welcoming the planned inclusion of social sciences and the humanities in FP7, she worried that the budget for such activities was too low. Dr Mitsos reminded her that in the EU Treaties, the Article covering research specifies that all activities must contribute to European competitiveness. 'It is almost 'illegal' to be spending money at EU level on social sciences and humanities [...] so the fact that we are pressing ahead with this under FP7 is already an achievement,' he said. 'And please don't underestimate the figures involved - for one thing research activities are less costly in this area, and we are actually proposing the creation of the largest social sciences and humanities programme in the world.'
A final question from the floor related to the priority given to the EU's international research cooperation, particularly with developing countries. The usually pragmatic Dr Mitsos excused himself for waxing lyrical, and said: 'Research is unique in being the only area where cooperation and competition exist simultaneously. Competition in research is not the type that divides, it unites,' he concluded.
It was announced on 9 November that Dr Mitsos will step down as Director General of DG Research at the end of 2005, when he will take up the role of 'advisor without portfolio' to Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik.