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'We want to enter as a main player on the main stage', Janez Potocnik tells CORDIS News

In his first interview with CORDIS News since being appointed Science and Research Commissioner, Janez Potocnik outlined his immediate and long term priorities, and explained why he believes a focus on knowledge creation is essential to protecting the 'European way of life'. ...

In his first interview with CORDIS News since being appointed Science and Research Commissioner, Janez Potocnik outlined his immediate and long term priorities, and explained why he believes a focus on knowledge creation is essential to protecting the 'European way of life'. Most important for the Commissioner at this point in time are the major documents currently being prepared or discussed by the Commission - the Commission's five year work programme, the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy, and the financial perspectives for 2007 to 2013. In reference to these three documents, and the accompanying debates, Mr Potocnik says that 'the major thing we need to achieve in this half of the year, especially in this first month, is to explain as well as possible how important the role of knowledge, science and technology is for the future of the European Union. We want to enter as a main player on the main stage because this is something that the future orientation or streamlining of the Lisbon strategy is asking for.' Indications are that the streamlined Lisbon strategy is likely to award even more emphasis to research and development (R&D), and Mr Potocnik has some valid arguments for such an approach. The EU of the future will no longer be able to compete on low wages or social security systems, he says. 'We have a European way of life that has to be preserved. By focusing on and streamlining Lisbon it means that we have to re-orientate on how to achieve it, how to implement it. This will lead us to the answer that the basis is in knowledge: knowledge creation, knowledge dissemination, knowledge use.' The concept of 'knowledge for growth' has been mentioned several times by the Commissioner since his appointment in November. But it is 'not an invention or any kind of new strategy,' according to Mr Potocnik, its simply an indication of the way in which the Lisbon strategy should be streamlined. The Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is to be at the core of this focus on knowledge. The Commissioner promises reorientation, but also continuation - both in terms of substance and the funding instruments. While the new instruments introduced in FP6 will be preserved in FP7, the Commissioner sees facilitating their use as a priority. 'Much effort from us at the European level and also at national level is needed, and we have to work together,' he says. Two new features of FP7 will be the European Research Council (ERC) and Technology Platforms. 'I see the European Research Council as a kind of champions' league of knowledge,' says Mr Potocnik. 'We have various different approaches in individual countries which are addressing [basic research] in the way the country sees most suitable [...]. It's like we have national leagues for football, but we created a champions' league where the best teams are competing and where you can see the best games played.' The Commissioner reiterated that the ERC must be based on excellence and autonomy for researchers with regard to their area of study. How the body will otherwise look is still undecided, but the Commission is moving 'step-by-step' towards a solution, says Mr Potocnik. A number of steps have already been taken. The Commissioner has already nominated the members of an 'identification committee', which will in turn be responsible for selecting the members of the ERC's governing body. 'We want it to be clear that it's not the Commission that is deciding, but the scientific community itself,' he explains. The Commission will, however, maintain a degree of control over how its funding is spent by the ERC. How this will be done, and how the new funding instrument will look, is still under discussion. Technology Platforms appear to have taken on a life of their own, and have been springing up across the scientific disciplines in recent months. They were initially proposed by the Commission in order to bring together companies, research institutions, the financial world and the regulatory authorities at European level to define a common research agenda that should mobilise a critical mass of public and private resources Mr Potocnik denies that the Commission has taken a step back from the platforms, and emphasises the importance of creating Technology Platforms from the bottom-up. The majority of Technology Platforms will be able to find co-financing through collaborative research in FP7, while those that are seen as having potential for long-term collaboration, along with vision and the participation of society, could receive 100 per cent funding as a Technological Initiative, says the Commissioner. While Technology Platforms are primarily of interest for larger companies, the Commissioner is keen to ensure that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are not neglected by FP7. In order to encourage participation, the Commission intends to develop incentives and smooth the process through simplification. Mr Potocnik also plans to establish a 'sounding board' group, hopefully comprising representatives from SMEs, for the process of preparing proposals, in order to establish where the stumbling blocks lie, and whether new measures are removing them. Those countries with a less-developed research infrastructure must also receive special attention from the European Union, although Mr Potocnik would rather that funding to address this does not come from the research budget: 'If the EU wants to compete on a global level, and if we want that the whole of Europe increases its competitiveness through knowledge creation and R&D, then I believe that it is not wise that R&D funds are used for solidarity purposes.' Instead, he proposes using the EU's Structural and Cohesion Funds. EU research funding could be used more to assist developing countries a little further from home, however. A recent UN report on the Millennium Development goals highlighted the importance of science and technology for alleviating poverty. Research can definitely do more, and Mr Potocnik has already discussed the issue with his colleague, Development Commissioner Louis Michel. The topic will be broached again during preparatory discussions on FP7. While the Commissioner envisages a number of changes in the European research policy of the future, there are a number of issues which, he regrets, remain out of his hands. Three such issues, solutions to which eluded the previous Commission, are the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER), the Community Patent and stem cell research. Negotiations on the site for ITER continue, and should continue to involve all six partners in the project, as it is a 'global problem', says the Commissioner. He regards the desire of two partners to host the reactor as 'not a bad sign, but rather as a commitment from both sides to solving the problem'. He is also hopeful that the process of finding and agreeing upon a solution will provide guidance on how global problems should be addressed in the future. Negotiations on EU funding for stem cell research, and on the establishment of a Community Patent, reached stalemate in the Council of Ministers. The ball is therefore clearly in the court of Member State governments, although the Commissioner emphasises that he would clearly welcome movement on these issues. The Community Patent in particular fits with the Commissioner's 'knowledge for growth' concept. He is thus hopeful that endorsement of this approach by the Council will create the right environment for constructive talks on the patent. With research set to take centre stage following the streamlining of the Lisbon strategy, it is set to be a busy five years for the new Science and Research Commissioner.