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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 15:44 GMT
Big challenge ahead for EU science
By Dr Peter Cotgreave
Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering

European flags Image: AFP/Getty Images
Most European nations fall far short of the 3% target
The best European scientists denounce the European Union's funding of research in terms as colourful as a display of European flags.

It is inadequate and out of touch with the reality of a modern competitive economy.

Framework Programme 7 is supposed to put that right, recognising the need to invest more in research and development, to be more flexible and to build stronger bridges between excellent science and business innovation, rather than creating artificial links between Aberdeen and Zurich for the sake of it.

The Lisbon agenda set a target that will be difficult if not impossible to achieve. The EU as a whole should be investing 3% of its Gross Domestic Product on research and development (R&D) by 2010.

FP7 represents about three quarters of 1% of the EU's national product, as far away from the Lisbon target as Helsinki is from Valletta
Almost no European country currently invests as much as 3% of its national wealth in R&D, and certainly none of the big nations like France (2.16%), the UK (1.88%) or Germany (2.49%).

International competitors perform much better; Japan is already at more than 3%, and the USA and Korea are close behind.

At about 7bn euros annually, FP7 represents about three quarters of 1% of the EU's national product, as far away from the Lisbon target as Helsinki is from Valletta. National governments and the private sector will also need to invest at much higher levels than at present.

Defining priorities

This is frankly unrealistic within the timescale of the Lisbon agenda. It means that within just over three years, the EU countries are going to have to find another 118bn euros a year for research, enough for every man, woman and child in the EU to fly backwards and forwards from London to Athens twice.

Infographic, BBC
In fact, the British government has already realised there is no chance of the UK achieving its share. It has reduced its aspiration to an investment of 2.5% of national wealth, and has given itself a longer timescale to get there - by 2014 instead of 2010.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and his team do not seem to fully understand that the best results come from allowing the science and business communities to define scientific priorities.

The European Institute of Technology (EIT) is one of Mr Barroso's big ideas, and is meant to help turn research theory into wealth-creating reality.

Organic development

He is right about the challenge, but this solution will not work. European institutions are years behind the American competition, and rather than creating yet another expensive acronym, we should invest in organic development in those universities that are already forging ahead, and which have great potential.

Scientist  Image: EyeWire
International competitors perform much better than the EU
Business has failed to pledge any of the private sector investment on which the EIT project depends. It looks to industrialists like an inflexible, bureaucratic institution rather than the flexible network of activity they would like.

If industrial leaders do not see Europe as an attractive and competitive place to do scientific business, then they will not spend their money here, and the Lisbon target will not be met in a century, let alone by 2010.

Making Europe competitive will involve a whole raft of policies, including low business taxes, which have attracted high-technology investment and jobs to Ireland.

But it will also involve substantial public sector investment in science education, in research, and in building strong networks between universities, businesses and other organisations.

'Blunt process'

FP7 has the potential to make an important contribution to those aims, but only if it avoids the traps of its predecessors.

It has got to cut down on the amount of ridiculous bureaucracy that is inherent in EU research.

It has to realise that people are more important than institutions. Most importantly, it has to learn to distinguish between funding excellent science on the one hand and, on the other, using funds to build scientific capacity in the poorer parts of the continent.

Both are admirable and desirable; indeed, both are essential to the economic success of Europe. But they cannot both be achieved with a single blunt process.

If FP7 focuses on properly achieving these twin aims, and if national governments concentrate on making Europe an attractive place for high-technology industrial investment, the Lisbon target might start to look to sensible, although there is no chance of it being reached by 2010.

If FP7 gets bogged down in the same problems as FP6, it will make itself irrelevant and national governments will need to work even harder to make Europe a competitive economy.

Agreement on EU science funding
27 Sep 06 |  Science/Nature
UK science cannot get complacent
02 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature
Euro science looks to new council
18 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature
Europe moving in 'R&D slow lane'
20 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature
Stakes high for EU science plans
01 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature

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