Brussels, 16 May 2003
Whilst it can sometimes appear that there are as many definitions of foresight as there are practitioners, it can generally be defined as the process of analysing current scientific developments and societal challenges in order to identify future research priorities, thus lending a long term perspective to policy making.
Many EU Member States, especially those with established and well funded systems of research, have already realised the benefits that such activities can offer. But what role can foresight play within the acceding countries, where a lack of financial and other resources often imposes limits on the scope of research activities, and where, generally, foresight is at an earlier stage of development?
This was one of the questions addressed during the opening session of a conference entitled 'Foresight in the enlarged European Research and Innovation Area', hosted by the Greek Presidency in Ioannina, on 15 May.
For Attila Havas, from the institute of economics at the Hungarian Academy of Science, the economic and societal challenges facing the accession states mean that foresight activities are every bit as important for them as for larger and more prosperous European countries, but the nature of the debate is somewhat altered.
When the enlargement process was still in its early stages, the current group of accession states were collectively referred to as the transition countries, and while the terminology has since changed, Dr Havas reminded delegates that these countries still find themselves in a state of flux.
'The accession countries are in a position where they need to find new markets, develop new industries, and increase their competitiveness in order to fully benefit from enlargement. Foresight can help,' he said.
Dr Havas described the tension that exists between short and long term policy making in many accession states. Economic and institutional reforms require long term approaches, he said, but funding and the attention of politicians are often diverted by equally pressing short term issues, such as unemployment and budget imbalances. 'A comprehensive foresight process, involving all stakeholders, can help to find a balance between these competing priorities.'
In order to convince stakeholders, however, Dr Havas told CORDIS News that it had been necessary to first overcome an initial reluctance to embrace foresight within the acceding countries.
'Many experts within the former Soviet states were skeptical at first, because they saw foresight as simply a new form of central planning,' he said. Scientists were also wary due to the fact that a process such as foresight, which can result in any number of outcomes or 'right answers', is itself not particularly scientific, he added.
The types of initiatives that Dr Havas feels accession states will benefit most from are joint foresight studies with neighboring countries, in order to identify synergies as well as different perspectives, as well as coordinated, or 'partially aligned', national foresight programmes.
Karel Klusácek is the director of the technology centre of the academy of sciences in the Czech Republic, and during his presentation to the conference he highlighted the role that their first national foresight programme had played in helping to direct a relatively small research budget towards key areas of research.
From a starting point of 612 different research priorities, foresight exercises were used to narrow that down to a core of 90 within five distinct thematic areas. Following the success of this exercise, Mr Klusácek announced that the authorities in the Czech Republic are now planning a second round of foresight activities aimed at addressing horizontal issues, solving particular societal challenges and producing future opportunities.
Like Dr Havas, Mr Klusácek told CORDIS News that in his opinion, a key success factor for foresight in the accession countries is achieving the support of stakeholders within the public and private sector, the research community, and society at large. 'In order to do this, we must effectively raise awareness and communicate the benefits of foresight activities, and this will best be achieved by offering examples of successful programmes,' he said.
As to the future activities that he would like to see the accession states undertake, Mr Klusácek argued that a two pronged approach would work best. On the one hand, he said, exchange of best practice and joint projects with other accession countries will often produce results of more relevance to a country like the Czech Republic, but pan European activities are also necessary in order to foster cooperation at EU level. 'The Commission can play a key role in the promotion of such cooperation,' he added.
Whilst the accession states are still relative newcomers to foresight in Europe, the positive experiences of countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic prove that such activities are equally necessary and relevant there as they are within current Member States.
Universally, foresight is still an evolving concept and without doubt, the full involvement of the future Member States in its development and refinement can only serve to strengthen it.
Conference website: http://medlab.cs.uoi.gr/conf2003/