Old hands at the new tools

October 1, 2002

Brussels, 30 Sep 2002

As the EU's Sixth Framework programme (FP6) prepares for launch, with the new instruments of integrated projects and networks of excellence taking centre stage, applicants could do worse than look at the experience of Canada in the use of the latter tool. Networks of excellence have been in force in Canada since 1990 and its experience could help address some of the head scratching that has greeted the new tools in FP6.

Started in Canada in 1990 with a four year remit, the programme became permanent in 1998 and saw an increase in its funding in 1999. Some 22 networks receive annual funding of C$77 million (49 million euro) a year. Networks are allocated funding up to a maximum of 14 years, as they are established for seven years, renewable once for a further seven years. Each network is reviewed every three and a half years.

'One of the main reasons for the networks of centres of excellence is that the population is spread over a large geography,' says Jean-Claude Gavrel, Director of the programme. 'We can't duplicate the same research just because people want to live where they choose.' This no nonsense approach encountered resistance at the beginning. 'Universities and researchers don't like to be told how to do their research,' he says.

A typical network of centres of excellence (NCE) would be carrying out research on around 15 to 25 projects focusing on up to six different themes (but would have an overarching subject such as ICT or environment). Some 50 to 60 professors from up to 20 universities would be involved, a further 100 or so highly qualified people in the area and up to 50 companies. The annual budget would be up to C$6 million 3.85 million euro) from the NCE.

But the management of the networks is done on an inclusive basis. Boards are established that take in members who are representatives of major stakeholders, whether they are from the private sector, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) or others, who ensure that the work being done by the networks is of benefit to Canada.

The NCEs have shown their importance in the outcome of their work. Some 10 per cent of spin off companies from Canadian universities have some connection with an NCE. They have also had an effect on the legislation of the country. Mr Gavrel gives the example of how Canadian roads and bridges are adversely affected by the huge amount of salt used on them to dissolve snow. 'So someone needs to tell policymakers about the new research that could lead to a change of procedures. The researchers inform the boards [of the NCEs] and these people can then convince the policymakers.' There are even breakfast meetings of representatives of both research and legislators, dubbed the 'bacon and eggheads' meeting.

Success in the work of NCEs is helped by having a decisive research leader, who has a vision, and adaptability to the changes in the market, says Mr Gavrel. As there is participation of the private sector, there needs to be sensitivity to what they are there for too. This differs according to the sector. While the ICT (information communication technologies) sector is largely looking for future staff, the biotech sector is coming with an interest in intellectual property possibilities of research.

'There needs to be an emphasis on managing the NCEs' says Mr Gavrel. 'There needs to be a scientific structure, you need to be confident that you have the right people and basically you need to have the same criteria as the venture capital people have - what is unique - and then manage it.

For further information on NCEs in Canada, please consult the following web addresses: http://www.nce.gc.ca

From late October, the following website will have a new Canada-EU science and technology section: http://www.infoexport.gc.ca/science

Remarks: Interested in partnering with Canada? If so, attend the 'Canada and Europe: Building R&D partnerships under FP6' session, which will take place at the FP6 Launch Conference from 16:00 -19:00, Tuesday November 12, 2002.

A 'Partner with Canada" booth will also be present in the exhibition area at the conference.

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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