Minister speaks of the four 'Cs' governing Austrian Presidency's plans for research
Austria has taken the reins of the EU at a crucial time for European research. But is it asking too much of the Presidency to not only reach a budget deal that is acceptable for all, and which significantly increases the funds available for the EU's research programmes, but to also bring all sides to an agreement over the content and structure of the Seventh Framework Programme for research (FP7)? Austria's Minister for Education, Science and Culture, Elisabeth Gehrer, does not think so. Speaking to CORDIS News before her presentation to MEPs, Ms Gehrer was optimistic about getting FP7 signed off within the tight timeframe available so that it can start in January 2007. She spoke positively about research efforts in her own country and Austrian-led moves to encourage research in the Western Balkans, a region that Austria borders. Austria's work on the research portfolio between now and the end of June will centre around four 'Cs', said the minister: 'continuity' in terms of working with what the UK Presidency achieved, 'consistency' in the themes prioritised in the programme, 'competence' in leading the debates on FP7, and 'cooperation' between the Presidency and the Parliament. Referring to the tight timetable, Ms Gehrer told CORDIS News that she intended to suggest to MEPs that everyone works so intensively in the working group that the stage is set for the Parliament to approve the proposal at the first reading in June. Such a scenario is of course dependent upon an effective trialogue between the Council, the Parliament and the Commission, she emphasised. The minister also claimed that a timely agreement is not just essential for European research, but also for showing Europe's citizens that the EU is serious about research, and that it can get things done. 'It's an ambitious goal, but I that it is really important to show that we are capable of negotiating, we are competent, and research is high on the agenda,' she said. In addition to FP7, the Austrian Presidency is planning to drive cooperation with the Western Balkans. Tying these countries to Europe is a foreign policy objective, but can be addressed through research, as Ms Gehrer explained: 'I am personally totally convinced that only when we give opportunities to the young people form these countries ? opportunities in research, opportunities in science ? will they be in a position to build up their countries and to stay in their countries. We have to stop this brain drain,' she said. Austria has already instigated closer cooperation with these countries with the proposal of a 'steering platform' involving the Western Balkans. The idea has already been approved by Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, according to the minister. The idea behind the platform is to intensify cooperation with the Western Balkans, to encourage the transfer of know-how and knowledge, and to offer support and motivation, Ms Gehrer explained. The minister has already seen support for the initiative within the EU, and expects that further support will come with the raising of awareness on the region. Austria itself has embraced research increasingly in recent years as it has worked to transform itself from a production economy to a knowledge economy. This has been no easy task, according to the minister, but was made necessary by the increasing availability of cheap labour elsewhere. A new university act also awards universities more independence, thus allowing them to be more innovative, and to set their own priorities. 'Science is on the up, and research too,' Ms Gehrer told CORDIS News. The country currently invests 2.35 per cent of its GDP in research, having done a lot of catching up in recent years. More funding is foreseen, and Austria has wholeheartedly signed up to the EU goal of increasing research spending to three per cent of GDP by 2010. Although Austria's goal is three per cent, this will only be possible if industry pulls its weight, said the minister. She is calling on all countries and regions to do their bit, and referred to the Lisbon national reform programmes as a means of showing that the will is there to make Europe more innovative and competitive. Of course any transition from one form of economy to another requires the support of citizens, and Austrians have not been neglected in this process. The country recently held a nationwide 'Long Night of Research', during which all research centres opened their doors and welcomed 45,000 visitors. The initiative was extremely successful and will be repeated annually, says the minister. Asked about Austria's scientific strengths, Ms Gehrer pointed to the natural sciences, and in particular to biology. Austria is also performing well in traffic engineering, she added. The minister finished by emphasising, however, that while Austria is increasing its investment in biology, this is not the only course that the country is following. Speaking less than a week after Austria and the world celebrated Mozart's 250th birthday, the minister stressed that students from all over the world still flock to Austria to study music, and that the country will to continue to support the humanities, music and art. 'We are not going in only one direction,' said Ms Gehrer.