A strategic vision for European research infrastructures
Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin has called on all European stakeholders to work together to define a common strategy for research infrastructures, essential components of the European Research Area (ERA). Mr Busquin was speaking at a conference on research infrastructures hosted by the Italian Presidency in Trieste on 21 November, which gathered experts from existing and future Member States. Their task was to examine how to improve decision making related to shared scientific infrastructures in order to realise the vision of an ERA. 'We must converge and collaborate: no Member State on its own has the resources required to create the new large scale infrastructures that are required to compete with the US and Asia,' said Mr Busquin. He added that the biggest barrier to this new method of cooperation is the lack of a strategic vision for shared resources based on the involvement of experts, policy makers and industry from all parts of an enlarged Europe. 'The public sector has to convince its industrial partners that joint collaboration can lead to the creation of effective infrastructures within a short timeframe. [...] A higher budget for infrastructures is also needed: some have put the estimate at 800 million euro per year, but pressure may be needed to allocate more in order to launch the process,' the Commissioner added. In looking for a likely starting point for the type of strategic vision called for by Mr Busquin, many speakers pointed to the work of the recently established European strategy forum on research infrastructures (ESFRI). The forum of Member State and Commission representatives was set up in 2002 to facilitate informal policy discussions at EU level, and to seek to ensure that such negotiations lead to concrete initiatives. Indeed, the first ESFRI annual report concludes that the body should extend its activities into as yet uncharted scientific areas, such as nanotechnology and life sciences, and recognises that: 'it is in the development of an overall approach to infrastructures at the European level that the full success of ESFRI is to be measured.' The European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) goes further, recommending that ESFRI should be expanded to include representatives from the acceding countries, scientific groups and industry, and should report to the Competitiveness Council in order to ensure a coordinated political approach. And EURAB left no room for doubt on the need for additional funding for shared resources: '[I]t seems clear that the means currently available in FP6 [Sixth Framework Programme] for research infrastructures are woefully inadequate to bring about a significant change in the direction of the ERA.' Alternative sources for finance suggested by the advisory board include the European Investment Bank and EU Structural Funds. Providing a researchers perspective, Fotis Kafatos from the European molecular biology laboratory (EMBL) called for a stable commitment to research infrastructures rather than a series of short term projects. 'We will still be able to ensure value for money, as inefficient resource providers will find their contracts being given to other facilities,' he promised. Dr Kafatos also pleaded for pragmatism on the issue of funding, claiming that putting together a patchwork of multi institutional funds is vastly preferable to not acting at all. He concluded by adding that 'it would be inappropriate for shared resources to have to compete with research projects for funding.' The conference was concluded with the thoughts of Dimitris Deniozos, Greek Secretary General for Research, and Italian Research Minister Letizia Moratti. Ms Moratti stressed that research infrastructures are a crucial tool for the growth of research in Europe, and argued that 'while Member States have the right to develop individually, pan-European approaches can be more effective.' Mr Deniozos closed by saying that a key issue would be the transformation of existing national infrastructures into global facilities, and that the subject would have to be taken into account when designing the Seventh Framework Programme.