Brussels, 03 Mar 2004
Basic research brings enormous benefits to society and is one of the most cost-effective investments governments can make, the European Commission maintained during a recent symposium held in Dublin.
Members of the scientific community, policy-makers and industry leaders from all over Europe met in Dublin last month to discuss the future of fundamental research – studying a subject in detail without specific applications in mind – and how the European Union should reshape policy to boost research excellence.
The European Commission – together with the Irish government, the current holder of the EU presidency – put on this two-day symposium entitled 'Europe's Search for Excellence in Basic Research' to address several pressing issues. Foremost is the widening gap between the world's scientific powerhouses – the USA and Japan, on the one hand – and Europe, on the other, in basic research.
Delegates wanted to go over what impact this gap is having on European industry and competitiveness. The meeting also reinforced an official Commission Communication the month before entitled 'Europe and basic research', which mentions what is needed for Europe to achieve its ambition of becoming a more competitive knowledge-based economy and how this affects progress towards building a genuine zone of scientific excellence – the so-called European Research Area (ERA).
The ERA is the brainchild of European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, who attended the symposium along with Director-General of Research Achilleas Mitsos. Joining them were high-ranking politicians from the Irish government and research officials from all Union Member States, accession states and other countries allied to the main EU research initiative, the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Commissioner Busquin said that, through excellence in fundamental sciences, the best scientists are attracted to Europe, which helps build and sustain the EU's knowledge-based society. Mr Mitsos spoke about the Union's tendency to put the cart before the horse by focusing too much on new structures rather than asking what these structures might do or how they would work. He and representatives from delegate countries approved a set of eight general conclusions that recognise the need to create more favourable conditions for basic research to flourish in Europe.
These include acknowledging that Europe should create a more attractive basic research environment, supported by high quality education, appropriate funds, and a host of other measures to strengthen performance. It was agreed that industry also needs excellent research, as well as the staff to match.
Delegates mentioned the role that a "partnership of national initiatives" might play in improving European research. In addition, the symposium welcomed the Commission's 11 February proposal for a significant increase in resources for EU-funded basic research from around €5 billion up to €12 billion in the next funding period (2007-2013).
These conclusions will make an important contribution to the EU's Competitiveness Council – something that the delegates are keen to see happen – which meets on 15 March. The Commission plans to put forward a second Communication in May this year to clarify specific ideas for reinforcing creativity and excellence in basic research by encouraging competition at the highest level amongst individual research teams in the enlarged European Union.