Europe's Information Society Technologies (IST) research programme is a unique resource and should therefore be reinforced, according to the conclusions of an expert panel that carried out a five-year assessment of the programme. The panel was chaired by Professor José Mariano Gago, the former Portuguese Minister for Science and Technology, and analysed the effectiveness of the IST programme between 1999 and 2003. The panel's final report describes its overall assessment of the programme as 'positive', noting that it effectively promotes international and institutional collaboration within the EU, and that no national alternatives exist or could be developed. 'The European IST programmes are unique and need to be reinforced,' it adds. At a press briefing in Brussels to present the panel's findings, Professor Gago highlighted several of the programme's major achievements, notably the development and normalisation of mobile telephony and the introduction of high-speed research networks such as GÉANT and GRIDs. Looking forward, he added that the programme should urgently address scientific digital publishing and archiving in order to retain Europe's global competitiveness. The panel also stressed the importance of continuing to administer the IST research programme through DG Information Society - an entity separate from the rest of the EU's research administration. The key justification for this, according to the panel, is that DG Information Society has the competence to implement both the IST research programme as well as IST policies. However, despite its positive overall assessment of the programme, the panel did raise a number of concerns. Chief among these was the sharp decline of participation in the programme by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe. During the period covered by the assessment, SME participation fell from 25 per cent to 15 per cent, a trend that Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding described as 'unacceptable'. Professor Gago and his panel believe that the reason for this decline was the introduction of new instruments for participation. 'These large Integrated Projects aimed to create a critical mass, but their application was not good enough and there was too much bureaucracy. If not contained, the steady rise of bureaucracy will kill research in Europe,' he warned. When asked by CORDIS News what she could do to reduce bureaucracy within the IST programme, Commissioner Reding accepted that red tape is a major problem, but pointed out that the Commission is unable to take certain decisions on its own. 'I have already initiated discussions with the European Parliament, for example, on how financial decisions are made. Current levels of control seek to eliminate financial risk, but research is about risk taking, so this situation is counter productive. However, reform can only be achieved through collaboration between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council,' she added. The panel also noted that the EU's overall objectives for the information society cannot be achieved through research alone, and that an improved IST policy-mix is therefore necessary. Areas for action include better regulation and policies to create new markets for technologies, measures aimed at boosting innovation and improving the uptake of research results, and the need to address risk and security issues within a single and coherent framework. Finally, the panel warned that the creation of a new EU mechanism for supporting basic research, such as a European Research Council, should not be allowed to draw basic targeted research away from the IST theme. 'Typically in the IST theme, basic and applied research have to be developed closely together and therefore should be positioned within one programme,' states the report. When asked by CORDIS News to clarify this statement, Professor Gago stressed that the panel had no objections to basic, non-targeted IST research being carried out within a separate framework. In closing, Professor Gago and his panel welcomed calls for an increase in the EU's overall research budget, and argued that IST should continue to represent one of the largest areas of investment under the framework programme. 'The IST programme is a precious asset for Europe and must continue,' he concluded.