Brussels, 25 Jan 2005
'What Europe needs is political will. There is a political will in the making, but it needs to be voiced and clear,' heard MEPs at a public hearing on the future of European research in the European Parliament's committee on industry, research and energy (ITRE) on 24 January.
The appeal came from Carl Sundberg, Associate Professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, who also expressed the wish 'to see more parliamentarians pushing science'.
The hearing gave representatives from the research community the opportunity to react to the Commission's proposals on the future of European research, and to outline how they would like to see the proposals further developed. MEPs were keen to hear the reaction of stakeholders to the proposals, and also to make it clear what they consider to be the priorities for research policy.
Discussions focused in particular on basic research and the proposed European Research Council (ERC), small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and innovation, thematic priorities and technology platforms.
Presentations by Professor Sundberg and Federico Mayor, Chairman of the ERC Expert Group, underscored the importance of independent governance for the body, and of using it to attract more third country researchers to Europe. Horst Soboll from UNICE voiced his support for the ERC on the condition that its establishment is not at the expense of industry. It must be run alongside existing framework programme activities, he said.
Among the many ensuing interventions by MEPs were questions on the structure of the ERC, the danger of overlap with provisions for basic research within the Member States, and European added value.
UK MEP Eluned Morgan raised the point that, if excellence is the sole criterion for receiving EU funding, teams consisting of researchers from only one country could win financial support. 'Where is the European added value?' she asked.
Ms Morgan received two responses. Professor Sundberg said that the European added value will come from critical mass, from bringing scientists together from across Europe to evaluate proposals. ITRE Chair and UK MEP Giles Chichester added: 'I would think that the fact that they have competed against the best in Europe is European added value in itself.'
Rapporteur Pia Locatelli summed up the debate on the ERC with the comments: 'The number of questions on how the European Research Council will work attests to how important and delicate everybody thinks it is. It is a stepping stone towards the creation of a European Research Area, which is perhaps as important as the internal market or monetary union.'
Speaking on SMEs, Susana Borrás from Roskile University in Denmark, pointed to the numerous policies needed in order for them to be successful. 'Innovative SMEs are still trapped between research and enterprise policy,' she said. The broad mixture of policies required must address issues such as physical infrastructure, environmental polices, training, information diffusion, research, venture or risk capital and clustering, she said.
Ms Borrás called for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research to be more accessible to SMEs. She also highlighted the need for more of a focus on science and technology parks (which she termed 'factories of innovation'), knowledge diffusion and technology transfer at universities. In addition, future EU innovation policy should create the framework conditions for innovation in clusters, encourage the engagement of a wide range of local actors, and stimulate cross-border partnerships for policy-learning, she added.
Philomela Komninou, Associate Professor from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, made the case for increased funding for human resources and mobility within FP7. Answering her own question of 'how did we get here?', Professor Komninou referred to a lack of public recognition of researchers, a deficiency of incentives and career development plans, restrictions on the number of consecutive contracts, and the insecurity associated with short term contracts. Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Raffaele Liberali indicated his commitment to new initiatives to attract and keep the best brains in Europe.
Addressing a subject on which the real debate has yet to commence, Sigurd Lettow presented the Helmholtz Gemeinschaft's views on the research priorities for FP7. He listed six research fields for consideration: renewable energy; Earth systems and environmental research; health research; new technologies and materials; transport; and information processing technologies. He also called for the promotion of interdisciplinarity through the integration of the current NEST (new and emerging science and technology) programme into the thematic priorities, and the publication of more joint calls for proposals.
Following a formal response from the Parliament and the Council, the Commission expects a final decision on future research policy to be made in mid 2006