Philippe Busquin, the new European commissioner for research, tells Martin Ince about his ambitious plans.
If you are one of those people for whom life is unthinkable without a mobile phone that works anywhere in Europe, you already have European Commission research to thank for your happiness.
You are also in good company. Ask Philippe Busquin, who since September has been commissioner for research, about some of the fruits of European Union research and he plucks a phone from his shirt-pocket as evidence and cites the GSM standard for cellphones as a prime product of European technology collaboration. Four months into his term of office, he must find the thing useful on his intensive programme of visits to European science centres.
Himself a scientist, Busquin was a physics lecturer and environmental scientist before beginning a career in Belgian socialist politics, becoming an MP and holding a clutch of posts including education minister and leader of the francophone Socialist Party. Earlier this year he was an MEP for a few months before becoming a member of the new European Commission assembled by Romano Prodi.
Asked about his priorities, Busquin says that the first is to run the research directorate-
general's Framework 5 research programme effectively.
Framework 5 started late because of extended wrangling between the commission, the research ministers and the European Parliament, and Busquin is known to think that it could be run better and with less paperwork.
He is determined that the sixth Framework programme for research will be finalised in mid-2002 and start on time in 2003. One of the tasks he has to push in the first half of 2000 is to begin preliminary discussions of Framework 6 with the parliament and the research council, and he is hopeful that new methods such as co-decision making with the European Parliament and the introduction of qualified majority voting on many EU programmes will help things along.
Busquin is enthusiastic about such reforms, but becomes genuinely animated about his
longer-term aim, the development of what he terms a "European research area". He points out that multilateral spending, including EU money and the budgets of bodies such as the European Space Agency and the Cern particle physics centre, add up to about 18 per cent of European research spending. But European research is splintered and has no critical mass in vital areas.
His aim is to open talks with member states, international organisations, industry and the scientific community to build a system in which needs are defined and resources coordinated in a single system. This would address problem areas such as human mobility, patenting, the availability of capital and the development of centres of excellence.
Busquin adds that building up the European research area will involve "getting public opinion in favour of promoting research". One way to do this is to push the links between research and employment and between research and the future knowledge society, another commission enthusiasm. As he says: "European citizens need scientific knowledge to avoid getting lost in their own lives, just as Europe's scientific expertise needs a higher level of acceptance."
Another of Busquin's priorities is the future of the commission as a performer of research in its own right. The eight-site Joint Research Centre, originally set up to help nuclear power development, is now active in many areas of science and technology, including space and the environment. In the spring, former EU commissioner Etienne Davignon's expert group will report on the future of the JRC. Busquin points out that the JRC houses many leading European researchers on different aspects of safety, including nuclear, food and environmental, safety as well as computer security. A likely future for the JRC will turn it into an expert centre for research in these areas alongside a role as a futurology centre for the commission and other European institutions.
However, the JRC's history will be costly to escape. About E230 million (Pounds 140 million) will be needed over the next 15 years to decommission its nuclear reactors, and there may even be a case for some to be replaced. But Busquin adds that the JRC will "learn by doing" as it decommissions its reactors, allowing it to become a substantial centre of decommissioning knowledge.
The commission is not likely to embark on the construction of big new pieces of research infrastructure any time soon. But Busquin says that helping to assess European needs, for example for neutron beams or synchrotron radiation, does form part of its remit - although he has not been involved in the current argument about the new United Kingdom/French synchrotron source. "It helps the European dimension to have us involved, if only because it avoids individual nations setting up overlapping individual facilities."
By contrast, he says: "We are starting to look at areas in which infrastructure improvements are needed for smaller-scale work. Information technology allows us to set up virtual centres of excellence, but there are questions about how we support them. The introduction of Internet 2 (a new and faster development of the internet in the United States) is going to be a major growth factor. In Europe, our diversity of language and culture gives us a creative advantage, but we need to make the most of it."
Advanced communications technology is an essential part of this, says Busquin. "Our role is to produce added value from the European dimension, which the Framework 5 research programme is already doing."
Asked for examples, he begins with the GSM phone - which owes both the standard and much of its hardware to European research projects. He moves on to the yeast genome, sequenced by a European laboratory network, and research being announced this week on the Mediterranean coastal zone, in which British universities have had a significant role. Busquin also mentions the Craft programme, which has been designed to allow more small and medium enterprises to join in EU research.
He points out that despite its reputation for concentrating on applied research, the commission has been funding work on problems such as the ozone hole. It has also supported biotechnology research on topics such as asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease at a stage too early for drug company involvement. In any case, he says, "the distinction between pure and applied research perhaps cannot be drawn," especially in the life sciences, where application is very rapid or in mathematics, where fuzzy logic research has rapidly found its way into aircraft safety systems.
Asked whether his fellow commissioners are keen on research as a priority, Busquin points out that several of them have portfolios that require scientific and technological innovation. In energy, the Kyoto treaty target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions can only be met by new technology. Busquin says: "The energy commissioner (Loyola de Palacio) wants solid research to nourish the energy debate, a very important and difficult problem." The same applies to food safety and in other areas.
In addition, research is one area where the "accession states" aspiring to EU membership can get early experience of the community they wish to join. Busquin points out that they can join research projects on an equal footing with existing EU members and are involved in more than 400 Framework 5 programmes. The EU is also training nuclear power station operators in the accession states as well as Russia and Ukraine.
Pursuing Framework 5, the start of Framework 6, the future of the JRC, the European research area and a clutch of other projects will mean a busy first half of 2000 for Busquin. But while Europe is being outspent in research by the US and Japan, he insists, working to build public support for research and to create a European research mentality are two of the keys to more and better European science.