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New research infrastructure scheme will boost cooperation, says Flemish minister

The Belgian region of Flanders is to set up a new scheme for financing research infrastructure, Hercules Financing. According to Fientje Moerman, the Flemish Minister for Economy, Enterprise, Science, Innovation and Foreign Trade, the initiative will help to attract foreign re...

The Belgian region of Flanders is to set up a new scheme for financing research infrastructure, Hercules Financing. According to Fientje Moerman, the Flemish Minister for Economy, Enterprise, Science, Innovation and Foreign Trade, the initiative will help to attract foreign researchers to Flanders and facilitate cross-border cooperation. 'Our aim in striving to establish high-quality research infrastructure is to make Flanders more of a magnet for talented scientists, effectively reversing the brain drain,' said Ms Moerman in an interview with CORDIS News. This opening-up of infrastructure to researchers from other countries is welcomed by the European Commission, and encourages the practice under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), and has plans to go further under FP7. 'The current national actions towards research infrastructures are key for the future of European research,' says Hervé Pero, Head of Unit for research infrastructures within the European Commission. 'However, more can be done if we pool our resources at European level, if we can share risks and costs, if we can offer the best facilities to our researchers, independent of their localisation.' Hercules Financing will be a scheme for funding large and medium-sized research infrastructures at Flemish universities and higher education institutions. The ministry plans a budget of 25 million euro per year for the mechanism, and is considering operational leasing and public-private partnerships to attract further financing. The funding mechanism will have three objectives: to promote cooperation between Flemish universities, higher education institutions, public research centres and industry; to guarantee the availability of research infrastructure during its debit period; and to support infrastructure projects. Medium-sized infrastructure project proposals will be evaluated by university research councils, whereas applications for funding for larger projects will be assessed by a special commission, comprising representatives from universities, higher education institutions, research establishments and industry. Another commission will evaluate the business plans set out in the proposals and will give advice on optimising the financing. The committees may include non-Flemish experts if appropriate, said Ms Moerman. 'The quality and know-how of the researchers or research team behind the proposal and their international standing will also be taken into account,' the minister added. Ms Moerman was reluctant to specify which types of infrastructure Flanders may need, and emphasised the bottom-up approach of Hercules. It will be open to all academic disciplines, from the physical sciences to the social and human sciences, she said. 'Accordingly, the term 'infrastructure' is broadly interpreted to include not only conventional scientific infrastructure, but also potentially collections, natural habitats, corpora and databases,' she added. The minister did however outline a number of Flanders' strengths: 'Bibliometric analyses show that Flemish universities and scientific institutions are among the top establishments of their kind in Europe, in terms of both their output of publications and their respective international reputations. In patents too, Flanders' output is among the highest of any regions, though the vast majority of these patents is generated by a limited number of multinationals.' Flanders invested 2.24 per cent of its GDP in research in 2002, and 2.14 per cent in 2003. The minister believes that the government's spending on science and innovation 'illustrates the major importance attached by the Flemish government to innovation as the driving force behind job creation'. At the European level, the Commission funds integrating initiatives, aimed not only at coordinating efforts, but also at developing 'joint research actions to improve capacity and performance of facilities and joint research services to external users', says Mr Pero. More than 50 per cent of funding under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) - around 90 million euro - has been devoted such actions, he says. For two years, the Commission has supported several design studies and construction projects on infrastructures of pan-European interest in a pilot programme. It is also shaping a genuine policy for research infrastructures in Europe, together with ESFRI, (the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures). Together they will produce the first roadmap for new infrastructures. Under FP7, the Commission will go further still, introducing 'a new and strategic element' in the form of support for the construction of new research infrastructures, building on the work conducted by ESFRI. The budget will increase by 60 per cent compared to FP6. The original FP7 proposal foresaw Community support at two stages of the new infrastructure process: during the preparatory phase and during the implementation phase. As the budget for infrastructure is likely to be 50 per cent less than the amount originally proposed, Commission funding will now be channelled primarily into the preparatory phase. Support in the implementation phase is likely to be indirect, for example through the Risk Sharing Finance Facility. In very few cases, direct support may be provided through grants. As Minister Moerman highlighted, research infrastructure can expand a region's capacity for carrying out research, and also have a significant social and economic impact. 'For the innovative research conducted at these facilities generates new industrial and socially relevant applications, which can in turn spawn new economic activity, generate added value, or create more jobs,' she told CORDIS News.