Australia considers ways to increase participation in FP5
Representatives from the EU-Australia joint committee are considering ways to encourage more participation in the Fifth Framework programme (FP5). The committee, which meets on an annual basis and recently convened in Brussels to review Australia's participation in FP5, believes there is still scope to increase the number of Australian research teams collaborating with European partners on FP5 projects. At the time of the meeting, the EU-Australia group reported that several projects involving Australian partners as the co-ordinator had been selected for funding under FP5, essentially under the Quality of life programme and Information society technologies programmes. Nonetheless, the Australian response to other areas of FP5 was lower than expected. Officials from both sides of the world were surprised, not least because of Australia's high level of participation in the previous, Fourth Framework programme (FP4). During FP4, Australian teams participated in 37 joint research projects with EU scientists and the number of Europeans participating in Australian research programmes doubled (with around 40% of Australian projects continuing with international collaboration involving European researchers). Collaboration in RTD between the EU and Australia is considered of mutual interest because of the high quality of research in both regions, according to a Commission official. 'Australia is one of the major economic partners of the EU, so it is important to have other links such as imports and investment funds and this stretches to R&D.' The EU signed its first cooperation agreement with Australia in 1994. It aims to facilitate collaboration between researchers on either side of the world and improve dissemination of information on both sides. Agreements with South Africa, the USA, Canada, China and Argentina followed. In addition, the EU has also signed an association agreement with Israel, which means that Israel contributes financially to the framework programmes and the Israeli partners in successful projects are supported by the EC in the same way as any EU partner. Discussions on possible agreements with Brazil and India are underway. These cooperation agreements are reciprocal, allowing the non-EU research groups to participate in specified parts of the EU RTD Framework Programme and EU research groups to work within those countries' research programmes. All these countries, with the exception of Israel which contributes financially to the Programme, must finance their own participation in projects under the European RTD framework programme. A number of Australian researchers also participate in other EU-funded research projects outside the framework programmes, including Intelligent manufacturing systems (IMS), the G7 information society and COST Actions, as well as IFO 2000. Australia remains confident that more Australian research teams will join the programme in the near future. A member of the Australian mission to the EU in Brussels explains: 'We had 37 participants in FP4 at project coordinator level, whereas Canada had 50. We think that comparing the relative sizes of our economies, we're holding our own. 'For FP5 so far, proposals involving an Australian partner have had above average success in being selected for funding. But the close to 30% success rate (as opposed to an average of 20% for FP5 as a whole) belies the fact that the Commission received fewer proposals involving Australians contracts than were expected. Bearing in mind Australia's relatively high participation rate in FP4 and efforts made on both the EU and Australian side last year to open up more areas to the possibility of collaborative research, there is some disappointment all round.' Representatives from all the eight major research administrations in Australia and from the country's department of science and research joined the EU-Australia cooperation committee to discuss ways to encourage more Australian participation in FP5. Before the meeting, the Australian contingent heard from other countries involved in RTD agreements, and were particularly interested to learn how they have adapted to try get the most out of FP5. Australia is now considering ways to promote linkages, encourage participation in FP5 and help research teams join or initiate more potentially successful proposals. Drawing from the experiences of other non-EU countries, members of the EU-Australia delegation discussed how synchronisation of the timing of calls for proposals - used in the USA, for example - could be a beneficial administrative move. 'At least one of the Australian research institutes could see advantages in using this system,' reported an Australian representative. 'They would decide on an area, allocate funds and organise calls.' The group was also particularly interested in the Swiss system of setting money aside for EU cooperation and preventing duplication of evaluations by relying - except for very big proposals - on EU evaluators. The EU delegation in Australia works with the Australian department of industry, science and resources, actively promoting FP5 and bi-lateral science and technology cooperation through events and workshops. Their approach aims to highlight the economic benefits of collaborating with the EU. In 1999 the EU mission in Canberra, Australia, wrote: 'The EU is the world's largest integrated market place with over 375 million consumers in 5 separate Member States accounting for 30% of world GDP ($A12 trillion). It is also the world's largest trader (20% of the worldwide trade or $A2.6 trillion in 1998). With up to 13 new members from central and eastern Europe and Mediterranean countries expected to join in the early part of the next decade and with a single European currency (the euro - which commenced at the beginning of 1999) further sustained growth can be expected.... Taken as a single entity, the EU is clearly Australia's largest economic partner.' Australia is now looking into the differences between Australian and EU research priorities, which might affect the level of participation in FP5. It is considering ways the current system - in which Australian research institutes operate independently to determine their own research priorities - could be adapted. Other ideas for promoting the EU research programme in Australia include the dissemination of information through websites and participation in major conferences like IST 99, last year's major information society event in Helsinki, and the 'Biotechnica' and 'EXPO' fairs later this year. Other possibilities on why Australia's level of participation in FP5 is not as high as expected are still being discussed. An official of the Australian mission suggests a number of ideas, including possible difficulties in adjusting to the new socio-economic biased approach: 'Some institutes may also be giving priority to bilateral agreements and distance could still be a factor,' he suggests. 'It's clear from discussions that Australian agencies need a strategic and determined approach. But it's early days and not yet clear what the direction will be. We shouldn't jump to conclusions as it's only the first couple of calls, but we do need to devise a work plan mostly for the Australian side,' the official concluded. Earlier this year, Australia convened an innovation summit from which a report should be published this autumn. This is expected to pave the way for a jointly agreed 'EU-Australia innovation action agenda' by the end of the year.