UK may play smaller part in Europe's next research framework

March 28, 2003

As the EUA conference gets under way in Bristol, Caroline Davis examines ressearch collaboration

In March 2000, the Lisbon European Council agreed that it wanted Europe to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

To achieve this, European Union commissioner for research Philippe Busquin launched the sixth framework programme (FP6) and a European Research Area (ERA). Key to both of these will be long-term cross-European collaboration.

The 300 university heads in Bristol for the European University Association conference this week will discuss just how this can be done.

It is impossible to measure how much collaboration is already happening.

Formal mechanisms, such as the first five framework programmes, give only a fraction of the picture. Countless researchers work together on an informal basis, both within Europe and with the wider academic community.

Collaboration can be anything from an exchange of emails to discuss a single point to multimillion-pound projects comprising hundreds of people.

The motivation for collaboration is unlikely to be the vision of a knowledge economy. Researchers want to do excellent science - and that involves collaborating with the best in the field, at home or abroad. So does this make the ERA an artificial and limiting concept?

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, said that it does.

"Academics will collaborate with their best peers," he said. "But that doesn't mean that identification or creation of partnerships can't be led."

The aim of the ERA was, he said, to ensure that there was no unnecessary duplication of research efforts while building critical mass to enable Europe to compete globally. At the same time, he said that competition was vital. On the one hand, it spurred creativity. On the other, the outputs of research feed directly into a knowledge-based economy - the country that develops and protects new technologies first will gain the economic advantages of selling them to the rest of the world.

And strengthening Europe's research base will help to keep up that competition. "It won't help Europe's academics to be second best," Professor Thomas said. "We don't want all our best staff to move to the US."

Last week, Mr Busquin presented the latest science and technology indicators. His message was clear: to meet the Lisbon objectives, far more needs to be done.

There is still a brain drain towards the US, which is where most researchers who decide to work abroad go. Only a quarter of European PhDs come back, and this proportion is decreasing.

The indicators show that despite producing more science and technology graduates and PhDs than the US, the EU employs fewer researchers, just 5.4 per 1,000 of the labour force, against 8.7 in the US and 9.7 in Japan.

Overall, the EU invests much less in research than its main competitors, just 1.94 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2000, compared with 2.80 per cent in the US and 2.98 per cent in Japan. But in 1999, European business financed nearly 7 per cent of European university research expenditure, compared with 6.3 per cent in the US and 2.3 per cent in Japan.

And Europe beats the US and Japan in terms of papers published. The UK and Germany are the largest producers, contributing 22.5 per cent and 20.8 per cent respectively.

FP6 is designed to get European researchers working together for the long term. Anecdotal evidence suggests that collaboration between researchers through the first five framework programmes often continued beyond the lifetime of the programmes, but this was never an explicit aim.

According to Universities UK, the UK has consistently won back more from the framework programmes than it has formally contributed. More than half of projects funded under FP5 had UK participation, and the UK had greater participation overall than both Germany and France. The UK took almost a fifth of the funding available but also benefited from access to infrastructure, networks and research activities across the EU.

But particular barriers to UK researchers remain. Foremost is the cost. The framework programmes do not pay the entire costs of overheads - laboratory costs, technicians and so on.

The national research councils in many other EU member states make up these costs, but this is not the case in the UK. Last year's government transparency review calculated that UK institutions make a 40 per cent loss on each project.

And other countries, particularly France and Germany, have a system of dedicated research institutes that do not bear the teaching responsibilities that UK universities do.

Bigger budgets for larger projects in FP6 may mean less UK involvement overall. The difference between FP6 and previous programmes is that the projects will be on a much larger scale and will no longer be centrally managed by the EU. The contract will be between a network of institutions, one of which will have the responsibility of being the leader - and taking on the liabilities that this entails.

Because of the time, money and administration this will require, few UK institutions will be in a position to take the lead on more than one project. This will favour countries that have dedicated research institutions, such as France and Germany.

Although UK researchers have an advantage in that the main language for academics at conferences and for research papers is English, they can run into problems dealing with technicians in collaborator countries who may not speak good English. And UUK also suggests that being outside the euro zone could also present administrative difficulties.

David Pilsbury, chief executive of the World University Network, a group of 13 universities from the UK, the US and China working on joint research and graduate education programmes, suggests that the British tradition of peer review based solely on excellence has held back UK researchers.

By ignoring the extra value gained by adding an international element, researchers enter a double-jeopardy situation, risking losing the project if the UK funders turn it down, even if the overseas collaborator has won funding from its national funder.

He explained: "That's why FP6 is valuable, as it says that we want to facilitate working between countries, recognising excellence on an international basis. It takes a more holistic approach."

This did not undermine excellence, he said, it just recognised an extra dimension to the work.

The framework programmes emphasise funding applied research. But there is now growing support across Europe to set up a European Research Council to fund curiosity-driven research. This would support emerging fields of science on a responsive mode. But there has been a reluctance of member states to hand over a percentage of their national research budgets to a central body.

A telescope under the sea
Small by the scale of many particle physics collaborations, the Antares project will see a giant telescope built 1.5 miles under the Mediterranean Sea.

The Antares telescope will detect elusive neutrinos. These have no charge or mass, yet scientists believe they hold the key to understanding the dark matter that they say makes up more than 90 per cent of the mass of the universe.

UK spokesperson Lee Thompson, a particle astrophysicist based at Sheffield University, said the expense of the equipment made collaboration essential.

But he said the project also needed a mixture of skills, particularly those of oceanographers, which were not available in the UK.

"Looking exclusively at Europe would be folly," he said. "We have all the expertise we need from Europe. There is very little expertise that is only available in the US or Japan."

Dr Thompson said the European Research Area would help build European networks, which would enable problem sharing among similar disciplines.

The project has €20 million funding from its six member countries, including the UK, France and Russia, with some European Union regional development money. It comprises 150 physicists and astronomers from 16 organisations.

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