Brussels, 04 Oct 2004
In what proved to be a well received hearing for the Commissioner-designate for Science and Research on 1 October, Janez Potocnik pointed to the 'rich heritage' left by his predecessor Philippe Busquin and signalled his intention to carry on much of that work.
'European research is high on the political agenda, the European Research Area is operational, and the three per cent target [for EU research investment] is widely accepted among the Member States,' Mr Potocnik told the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee. 'There is no need for a revolution, but a strong need for an evolution of what's already been achieved.'
Top of the list of initiatives begun by Mr Busquin that Mr Potocnik would like to see through to delivery is the proposed doubling of the EU budget for research. Such an outcome is crucial to the success of the European Research Council (ERC), technology platforms, and research infrastructure initiatives that he firmly believes the EU should pursue. 'There is also an increasingly high rejection rate for projects in FP6 [the Sixth Framework Programme] - we are rejecting a lot of good proposals which shows that we could be doing a lot more,' added Mr Potocnik.
Other main themes of the Slovenian Commissioner-designate's introductory speech were the simplification, exploitation and balance of European research policy. Cooperation was also a central feature of the speech, and while Mr Potocnik declared himself ready to tackle the many challenges ahead, he made it clear that he would need the support of Parliament and Member States to achieve their common goals.
To illustrate the point, Mr Potocnik said that in the context of the EU's Lisbon agenda it was vital that the Commission introduce better forms of governance in order to make the strategy more operational, pointing to the creation of a Group of Commissioners for the Lisbon strategy as one example. 'But we must do so in the Member States also, maybe by creating a Lisbon strategy at Member State level with less priorities, but priorities that can be monitored closely,' he argued.
Similarly, when asked what priorities he thought would be included in the Seventh Framework Programme, Mr Potocnik replied: 'To talk of specific priorities at this stage is premature. We must first work out how we will reach those priorities, and that process will start in this Committee in November [...].'
The Commissioner-designate offered a clear insight into how he would approach issues of complex decision making when asked to outline his stance on EU funding for embryonic stem cell research: 'It is practically impossible for me to give an answer that would be acceptable to all, but my personal view is that we should not rule out in principle an avenue of research that could offer cures for thousands of children and adults suffering from disease. I will listen to the views of all stakeholders, taking into account the views of ethics committees, and then take the responsibility of proposing what I think should be done.'
He added: 'We must all listen carefully to one another, and try to have the debate without too much passion and without being intolerant.'
Turning his attention to the simplification of the Framework Programme, Mr Potocnik described the task as one of the most difficult that he would have to face. 'The EU's science and research system is still too complicated, which is not satisfactory [...] Applications still take up too much of researchers' time, and we need to target areas where the process is too slow and find solutions. This will be a difficult task, though, as the financial regulations governing the programme are very complicated, and we must ensure that the money is spent in the right way.'
Mr Potocnik described the idea for a two-step application procedure contained in the Marimon report as a good one, whereby applicants would only have to submit detailed proposals once the Commission had expressed an initial interest in the project. 'Some [simplification] initiatives are already underway, and those that can be implemented without legislative changes will be introduced under FP6,' he revealed.
As Commissioner for Science and Research, Mr Potocnik promised that he would try to identify strategies to overcome the current 'European paradox', whereby the quality of EU research is not translated into innovative output. However, he rejected the suggestion by one MEP that the EU should move away from supporting basic scientific investigation and focus more on applied areas of research. 'This division is outdated - we should talk of science driven and industry driven research. Basic research can be equally useful in the longer term [...] and if we fail to support basic research, one day we will find ourselves lost.'
Mr Potocnik repeatedly pledged to do all he could to encourage the involvement of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and entities from new and smaller Member States in the EU research effort, but again he reiterated the fact the Member States themselves are uniquely placed to be able to assist the Commission in this effort.
In conclusion, Mr Potocnik said that he was well aware of the difficulty of the task facing him, should his nomination be confirmed. 'I can offer you energy, integrity, and someone who will listen,' he promised. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive reaction of MEPs to Mr Potocnik's performance, it will not be long before he gets to put those qualities to the test.
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