Share well to fare well in the quality stakes

October 6, 2000

Cooperate to make the best use of resources, EU commissioner tells members. Jane Marshall reports.

European Union member states should make their large research installations more open to researchers from other countries and work more closely together to ensure top-quality science in Europe, said EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin.

Busquin was concluding a two-day conference in Strasbourg on future funding and operation of large research installations, held jointly by the European Commission, the European Science Foundation and the French EU presidency.

The conference, which was attended by European scientists, economists and policy-makers, discussed three main themes:

* Matching Europe's needs and resources

* Associating interested parties (EU candidate countries and those participating in the Framework programme) in the political decision-making process

* Defining practical steps needed to implement political decisions.

"Large research installations such as earthquake simulators, supercomputers and particle accelerators have so far been built and operated by individual member states, but they should be more accessible to researchers from other countries as well," said Busquin, who described the conference as a step towards developing a European Research Area.

"We need to cooperate more closely to make sure we are making the best use of our resources for the benefit of top-quality science in Europe," he said.

French research minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg said the EU's research efforts as a proportion of gross domestic product must equal those of the United States and Japan if Europe was to remain a great scientific continent. Sharing facilities made costly projects affordable and offered opportunities for researchers of different nationalities to work together - even so-called "national" installations had 30 per cent foreign users.

Schwartzenberg said the partnership principle should be extended from large research installations to smaller, costly and unique ones, such as computer networks, animal houses and databanks for pure or social sciences.

The minister also called for an easing of researcher mobility, which, he said, was less than that in the US because of language and the complexities attached to researcher status.

He noted that many European postdoctorate researchers stayed abroad, especially in the US, because they could not reintegrate into the EU.

"This forced exile of brains means a substantial loss for Europe, which paid for their training, and a waste of grey matter," he said.

Schwartzenberg proposed that they should receive grants to encourage a return to Europe and that the EU should increase mobility funds and finance 8,000 research posts a year.

The conference identified shortcomings in the present system. Among them were a lack of coordination at European level; a danger of duplicating efforts; a lack of critical mass to make an installation competitive and attractive to researchers worldwide; insufficient mobility of scientists in Europe; and too little collaboration with industry and small to medium-sized firms.

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