Brussels, 10 Nov 2005
'Research is an area where we can very easily show the general public that the EU is working positively for them. It isn't all about failed referenda and budget squabbles, but also working to improve their quality of life,' Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik has told CORDIS News ahead of a major conference intended to boost the communication of EU research.
The Commission has intensified its efforts to inform the general public about EU funded research activities in recent years with the organisation of various initiatives, awards and events. However, as underlined by the Commissioner, 'the best people to explain what is being achieved in a project are those doing the research, so we need the scientists themselves to see the value of communicating about their projects.'
Scientists must also understand the social context in which they operate, said the Commissioner. They must understand what people worry about, and what they want or need from science. The Communicating European Research conference is intended to identify tools, messages and methods to help scientists with communication, and also to raise awareness of what researchers are doing.
For this reason, the Commission is currently examining whether communication about projects can be included as an element of a project, as well as developing tools that could support scientists in getting information about their project into the public domain.
As acknowledged by Mr Potocnik, the European Commission also has a responsibility to European tax-payers to keep them informed of how their money is being spent.
Indeed, it is a huge amount of taxpayers' money that is spent on R&D. The current framework programme has a budget of over 20 billion euro, while the proposed budget for the next programme, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), is 72.73 billion euro. The Council has thus far refused to agree to such a high budgetary increase, however, putting in doubt both some of the Commission's proposals and the start date for the programme.
Mr Potocnik admits that the timing is 'extremely tight', but says that the Commission will do what it can in order to ensure a smooth and swift legislative process. As emphasised by the Commissioner, he and his officials have so far done their part on time, publishing the Specific Programmes in September, and finalising a proposal on the Rules of Participation that will be published in November.
'Now is not the time to speculate on how the programme will be adapted if we receive less budget than proposed,' insisted the Commissioner. He conceded however that 'we can't do everything that FP7 is proposing with significantly less money'.
Showing his frustration with the situation, he continued: 'When I talk to ministers from the Member States, they are very strongly in favour of the new elements of FP7, such as the European Research Council, Joint Technology Initiatives and research infrastructures. At the same time they stress the need for continuity. Meanwhile at another table, ministers from the same countries are discussing cutting the amount of money available. Member States have to accept that we can't reconcile these elements.'
CORDIS News pressed the Commissioner on the provisions in FP7 for the groups normally less present in the framework programmes, and on whether an apparent stronger focus on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) rather than women researchers and researchers from the new EU Member States is indicative of a shift away from equality and towards economic competitiveness. Mr Potocnik replied by saying that SMEs are the 'dynamos of the European economy', and that the programme must therefore involve them to the maximum.
'But that doesn't mean that other issues are not considered,' continued the Commissioner. 'Not only are there funds put aside within the programme to develop those Member States that are lagging behind in terms of scientific excellence, but the Commission is also proposing that a significant amount of Structural Funds be specifically allocated to research, development and innovation activities.'
Mr Potocnik claimed that this issue of gender in science is of 'very great concern' to him, underlining that Europe needs to increase the number of researchers that it has, and that the continent cannot ignore the 'significant contribution of female researchers'. The Specific Programmes are precise on the need to pay adequate attention to gender mainstreaming in FP7, he added.
It has been a busy few months for the Commissioner, and no immediate let up is in sight. The UK Presidency is currently drawing up a revised text on FP7 for consideration at the next Competitiveness Council at the end of November. If the budget proposed in the text is significantly lower than that put forward by the Commission, both the Commission and the Parliament are likely to object, and discussion will continue for several months to come.