Brussels, 13 Jul 2004
At a gala evening in Brussels on 12 July to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the EU Descartes Prize for scientific excellence, Dr Rainer Gerold, Director of the science and society directorate in the Commission's Research DG, told CORDIS news that although it still requires some fine tuning, it is on the right track to become a major scientific prize.
There are a number of factors that make this years' Descartes Prize special, explained Dr Gerold. First, this year the award ceremony will take place in Prague Castle in the presence of the Czech President Vaclav Klaus. 'It is the first time we have a president of a country participating,' said Dr Gerold. 'Secondly,' he added 'we are launching the first Descartes Prize for communicating science. And thirdly, we will present an exhibition on all the previous winners. All those features combined should make this year's award ceremony a very prestigious event.'
This sentiment was echoed by other participants at the gala evening, one of whom described the Prague ceremony as a 'qualitative jump'.
Indeed it appears that, although still in its infancy, the Descartes Prize is slowly establishing itself as part of the scientific landscape. According to one Commission official, over the last two years the objective of creating a Descartes community has been achieved. He also felt that what has been accomplished in terms of excellence is noteworthy: 'We can now start to build on what has been achieved and turn it into something momentous,' he said. 'More specifically, we need to concentrate on the valorisation of research in the eyes of the general public.'
Dr Gerold agreed, stating 'Science needs excellence, but equally it needs a more scientific culture that celebrates science and then communicates it.'
'However,' he added 'at present there is still not enough publicity around the Descartes Prize.' Dr Gerold explained that the prize recognises collaborative research, and it is often more difficult for a team to attract publicity than it is for an individual with a distinct history and personality. Nonetheless he remains optimistic. 'I could say that the European football championship final showed us the way forward. Indeed, at the end of the day, it was a team without any major star that won the cup. It all boiled down to efficient teamwork. In the same way, teamwork is an essential element in science.'
'Awarding prizes to individuals falls short of the present reality and of what we need,' emphasised Dr Gerold. 'We feel that the Descartes Prize's uniqueness - in that it combines excellence and teamwork - could serve as an example for others to follow.'
However, Dr Gerold regretted the low number of proposals this year - in 2004, there were only 28 applications, compared to 36 in 2003 and over 100 in 2002. 'We must mobilise both the academic and the industrial world to increase the number of participants. Luckily this does not affect the quality of the applications,' added Dr Gerold.
Turning to the subject of the Grand Jury, Dr Gerold emphasised its importance: 'All prizes depend on the quality of the Grand Jury and we have always been very lucky.' Dr Gerold was also pleased with the fact that the prize was not limited solely to Europeans. 'This shows the openness of European prizes,' he said.
'The only other thing I regret,' Dr Gerold told CORDIS News 'is the lack of representation from the social science field. The social science community does not seem to have caught the Descartes Prize on their radar. We are keen to mobilise them. However, we will not compromise on the notion of excellence simply to include social scientists,' he insisted.
'The same goes for women participation,' Dr Gerold added. 'Although we would like to see it increase, we will not compromise on quality. We prefer not to have any, than to have some that fall short of the general standard.'
Speaking to CORDIS News, another Commission official explained that to increase the credibility and the impact of the prize, the Commission was working towards a double partnership. 'On the one hand the Commission will consolidate its existing partnership with research institutes, national science academies and other international organisations, and on the other hand we want to increase our internal partnership with other directorates-general and services.'
Furthermore, concluded the official: 'We are aware that we need to be in constant relations with the scientific world and that our methods need to be re-evaluated periodically with the scientific community.'
For more information on the Descartes prize, please visit: