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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 10:57 GMT
EU money geared to smart future
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Test tubes (BBC)
Europe's future is to be built on a "knowledge economy"
Europe has begun rolling out its new research and development initiative - the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

FP7 will see more than 7bn euros (4.6bn) a year handed to investigators to advance scientific knowledge and, by extension, boost the EU's economy.

It runs until 2013 and amounts to a significant jump in investment over previous community programmes.

UK Science Minister Malcolm Wicks told a launch event in London that Europe had to get smarter to stay competitive.

Very few problems anymore exist in the silo of a single discipline or indeed a single university
Bill Wakeham, Southampton University
"Globalisation is the buzzword now; we are aware that we cannot compete on price alone in producing many of the goods that are made more cheaply in China, India and other emerging economies," he said.

"Europe's economies will prosper or not depending how good we are at coming up with new ideas, new science; and particularly how good we are at technology transfer and innovation."

Across borders

A little over 40% of the EU's expenditure is currently reserved for agriculture but an increasing proportion (5.3% last year) is committed to research.

And with FP7, the latest in series of pan-European collaborative science research budgets, the money available to drive the Union's "knowledge economy" forward gets even bigger - a 41% budget increase on FP6 at 2004 prices.

Infographic, BBC
Scientists working in university and other institutional laboratories, research divisions in large companies and even small enterprises can apply for funding from the FP7 pot.

The money is structured under themed headings and directed into priority research areas, such as information and communication technology (9bn euros), health (6bn euros), transport (4bn euros) and the fast-emerging nanotechnology sector (3bn euros).

The intention is that this money acts as an innovation growth factor, bringing on the next-generation high-value services and products that keep Europe at the forefront of world markets.

The UK has done very well out of the Framework series in the past. Its 6,000 participants in FP6 have so far taken more than 1.7bn euros, almost 15% of the available funding.

"Britain is involved in more projects than any other country in the EU. In a globalising economy, our scientists are on the front foot in co-operating with their counterparts across Europe," said Ashley Ibbett, from UK's Office of Science & Innovation and who led the British negotiating team in the run-up to FP7.

"Between 1992 and 2003, UK papers with international co-authorship doubled from 20% to 40%. France and Germany show similar trends. Science is becoming increasingly international with collaboration across borders."

Fast pace

What is different about Britain compared with other European nations is that most of its participants are from the higher education sector, from universities.

The government wants greater involvement from industry; it wants more corporations to follow the example of BT which now has 10-15% of its research spend tied up in Framework-funded projects.

"If you look at the technologies out there today, the window for exploitation is extremely short," explained Mike Carr, head of BT's research and venturing.

"From our point of view, the only way to succeed is to have a very rapid implementation strategy, and that means you've got to tap into technology from wherever it's from.

"In BT we probably only do something like 1% of the world's research in telecoms; 99% is going to come from somewhere else. And FP7 is all about tapping into that wider community of knowledge."

The downside in the past for any would-be Euro-scientist - as all who have gone through an application for funding will testify - has been the "legendry bureaucracy". The paperwork demands put off many, particularly from small enterprises.

The European Commission has promised a more streamlined process for FP7. There is also a commitment to pay more of the total costs of a research project, so a university or other research institution is not forced to "steal" from its other activities to sustain work through to completion.

Large scale

Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton University, is encouraged by the changes, and believes the collaborative model can only become more relevant in the future.

"Very few problems anymore exist in the silo of a single discipline or indeed a single university," he said.

"Some problems simply have a scale beyond that of one university, even one country. Such things as climate change are too difficult and too large to tackle alone, and one needs a mechanism that comes together to fund many universities in many countries. The Framework Programme has been that opportunity."

At present the EU spends about 2% of its GDP on research and development, significantly less than the US (2.8%) and Japan (over 3%).

Some emerging Asian countries, such as China, are now increasing their R&D investment to a rate where they will soon catch and overtake Europe.

Business investment has stumbled of late. As a consequence, Europe is now on track to miss the so-called Lisbon objective of boosting its spend to 3% of GDP by 2010.

"We need to do much more and we need to do it quicker," said Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for science and research.

"The 3% target remains a distant goal. If we do well and all member states realise the measures they have committed to in their national reform programmes, we could hit 2.6% in 2010."

UK groups interested in applying for FP7 funds can get advice and information from a new website set up for the purpose (see links).

Green light for EU science plan
30 Nov 06 |  Science/Nature
Big challenge ahead for EU science
30 Nov 06 |  Science/Nature
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

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