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We want your advice on European research policy, says Potocnik

'We want your advice on how Europe can improve its research policy,' urged Janez Potocnik, the EU Science and Research Commissioner, at a 'town meeting' event billed as a rare exercise in participatory democracy by its organisers, the news network Science|Business. Mr Potoc...

'We want your advice on how Europe can improve its research policy,' urged Janez Potocnik, the EU Science and Research Commissioner, at a 'town meeting' event billed as a rare exercise in participatory democracy by its organisers, the news network Science|Business. Mr Potocnik opened the interactive webcast by recognising that the fragmentation and duplication of Europe's research efforts means a much-needed shake-up of Europe's research system is vital if Europe is to create a competitive research area rivalling those of the US and Japan and emerging nations, China and India. 'How many millions of euros are spent on similar research institutions and areas of research?' the Commissioner asked participants from universities and professional organisations from 10 European countries. 'We do not have the luxury of time and now have to act quickly,' he stated. The background to the event was the European Commission's Green Paper 'The European Research Area: New Perspectives', which is seeking to elicit comments on a number of proposals, such as the coordination of national research and development 'R&D' budgets, to avoid duplication and achieve economies of scale. Other key objectives are new career structures and changes to pension schemes to allow scientists to move seamlessly from institution to institution, and from academia to industry and vice-versa. According to Mr Potocnik, the main idea behind the Green Paper is not to reinvent the concept of the European Research Area (ERA), but to create the right environment for the ERA to flourish. It is about introducing a 'Fifth Freedom' within the EU - that of the 'movement of knowledge', which should ensure a greater coordination across the continent and improve competitiveness. The movement of researchers and knowledge was, appropriately, the main topic taken up by academia and the private sector at the event. For Joachim von Heimburg, Director of Corporate R&D, Innovation and Knowledge (Europe, Middle East and Africa) for Procter & Gamble, the issue of mobility between academia and the private sector is problematic not because of money but because of decision structures. Dr von Heimburg also pointed to the different value systems found in academia and the private sector in Europe. For as long as universities are more concerned with their quest for academic knowledge and publishing papers, interplay with the private sector and its pursuit of innovation and products would remain challenging. However, he finished by offering a possible solution: 'I think innovation clusters are the best bet for promoting mobility in Europe.' The issue of training in Europe's academic centres was brought up by Andrew Herbert, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge. Mr Herbert said that the company hired more PhDs trained in the United States than in Europe because of their broader experience and range of skills. Therefore, 'What can be done to increase the level of interdisciplinary knowledge of European PhDs to make them more competitive?' he asked. The next key issue brought up by Torbjorn Digernes, Rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and Chairman of the Research Committee of the Norwegian Board of Higher Education, was how the European Commission can ensure that smaller and associated countries will not lose out to larger universities and companies in the race to get a share of research and development funding. Although he acknowledged these concerns, Mr Potocnik argued that schemes such as the European Technology Platforms (ETPs) and Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) are inclusive, with a bottom up approach. 'My advice is to be active and participate, as one creates one own demand,' said the Commissioner. As is often the case, the issue of overregulation, bureaucracy and the level of auditing and reporting was brought up, this time by Professor Vlastimil Ruzicka, the Rector of the Prague Institute of Chemical Technology. Mr Potocnik briefly explained the EU's accounting mechanisms for ensuring transparency, and promised that not only were procedures simpler under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), for example for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) due to the new guarantee fund, but also under the newly launched European Research Council (ERC). Two more current issues for Europe were brought out for airing: the European Institute of Technology (EIT) and the ongoing problem of formulating a European community patent law, which would make the costs of filing patents in Europe closer to those incurred in the United States. Although Mr Potocnik pointed out that the EIT is primarily the responsibility of Education Commissioner Ján Figel' and not himself, he did say that he believed it is a good idea, and likened some of the resistance to the idea as similar to that aired in certain quarters when the concept of an ERC was first mooted. 'And now look at the enthusiasm the ERC has received since its launch,' Mr Potocnik said. On the question of the Community patent, Mr Potocnik agreed with others' comments, saying: 'It is regrettable that Member States have been unable to reach an agreement on the issue and I think the issue should be tackled as soon as possible.' Finally, Mr Potocnik agreed to respond to the questions posed and issues raised during the 'town meeting', via the website of the organiser, Science|Business, which will present a final summary report to the Commission as part of its consultation process. As for the Green Paper, it is open for comments until August 2007. The Commission will then put together concrete proposals that will be included in Slovenia's programme as it takes the helm of the EU at the beginning of 2008.

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