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Fourth Framework Programme becomes reality

With the further series of decisions taken by the Council of Ministers for Research at their meeting in Brussels on 29 September 1994, roughly half the structure is now in place for the implementation of the Fourth Framework Programme. It means that the Commission is on course...

With the further series of decisions taken by the Council of Ministers for Research at their meeting in Brussels on 29 September 1994, roughly half the structure is now in place for the implementation of the Fourth Framework Programme. It means that the Commission is on course to achieving its objective of seeing through the adoption of all the necessary legal decisions by the end of this year. This is therefore a good moment to take stock of the situation. Substantial progress We have come a long way since the Commission first put forward its thoughts on the future direction of Community research in the early spring of 1992. The task of focusing on the Fourth Framework Programme really began, however, in the autumn of that year with the Commission's first working document. A second working document followed. These were an innovation. Instead of putting forward definitive proposals, the Commission went out of its way to invite comment. Such transparency has been widely welcomed. It has also helped ensure that researchers and the customers of research - the "users" - have had ample opportunity to put forward their suggestions for research with commercial potential. It is thanks to this extended process of dialogue and discussion that the Commission can be confident that the Fourth Framework Programme is widely supported within the European Union, both as to its approach and to its specific goals. This consensus has had its practical expression in the efficiency with which the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have taken the necessary decisions. This is an undoubted success for the Community institutions. The Fourth Framework Programme was adopted - by co-decision of the Council and the Parliament - ten months after the Commission made its formal proposals, and the first two specific RTD programmes were adopted just three months later. The Third Framework Programme was adopted in less time, eight months to be precise - under a "lighter" procedure - but it took more than a year to adopt the first specific programmes. The present position The total agreed funding for the Fourth Framework Programme - including the parallel decision for nuclear research - is ECU 12.3 billion for the period 1994-1998. This is enough to ensure the essential continuity of the Community's research effort. It has also been agreed that up to a further ECU 700 million may be added no later than June 1996. The Council of Ministers has now approved ten specific programmes - half of the total. This represents just over two thirds of the total budget of the Framework Programme. The programmes in question are: - Telematics (ECU 843 million); - Advanced communications technologies and services (ECU 630 million); - Information technologies (ECU 1,911 million); - Industrial and materials technologies (ECU 1,617 million); - Standards, measurements and testing (ECU 173 million); - Marine sciences and technologies (ECU 228 million); - Agriculture and fisheries (ECU 607 million); - Non-nuclear energies (ECU 967 million); - Cooperation with third countries and international organizations (ECU 540 million); - Controlled thermonuclear fusion (ECU 794 million) (on which the Parliament's opinion is awaited). With the model of the programmes now clearly established, it seems likely that all the necessary decisions will be taken at the next Research Council on 1 December 1994. This would include the adoption of the new decisions on the rules for participation of undertakings, research centres and universities, and the rules for the dissemination of research results, which are new requirements introduced under the Maastricht Treaty. In addition to assisting the Parliament and the Council in their deliberations, the Commission has been working rapidly to put the final layers into place - namely the work programmes. These have been finalized for the first two programmes on advanced communications technologies and services, and industrial and materials technologies. The new European Science and Technology Assembly is now looking at drafts of the work programmes for the remaining programmes. As soon as the Commission receives the Assembly's opinions, proposals will be put to the programme committees and the work programmes finalized. Key characteristics The Fourth Framework Programme covers a wide variety of activities, designed not only to help the competitiveness of industry but also to support other Community policies. In short, it aims to contribute one way or another to the quality of life. As Professor Ruberti, the Commissioner responsible for research, education and training, reminded the European Parliament on 4 October 1994, half of the total funding is in fields related to information and communications technologies, to the environment and to biotechnology, which were identified in the Commission's White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment as vital areas for the prosperity of the European Union. In these and all RTD fields, the Commission has identified further efforts to improve the diffusion and effective use of research results as a priority task. The job-creation role of SMEs is also a priority for the Fourth Framework Programme. Measures for feasibility studies and for promoting cooperative research modelled on the successful CRAFT scheme are generally being carried forward across the specific programmes, linked to target shares of research funding for SMEs. There is increased emphasis on international cooperation. Not only is international RTD cooperation now the subject of a specific programme - one of those adopted by the Council on 29 September - but the specific research programmes confirm a greater openness to international cooperation, including the possibility in specific cases of cooperation with third countries when this is in the interest of both parties and contributes effectively to the implementation of the programme. The specific programme on the training and mobility of researchers carries forward work of great interest to many in Europe. However, it is not only in that programme that there is an emphasis on training. It is a key objective of all the specific research programmes, and research on education and training is an important theme of the new programme of targeted socio-economic research. The new programmes on transport and on targeted socio-economic research are already attracting great attention. The latter will make an important contribution to developing a common understanding of the facts on which future research policies, both at national and EU level, should be based. Here the Commission's aim is to ensure that the different centres of expertise in Europe on key questions of "technology assessment" are effectively linked in a network which also ensures that those responsible for research policy questions are fully up to date. A further development concerns the Community's own laboratories of the Joint Research Centre. Carrying forward the extensive reforms of recent years, they will progressively undertake more and more of their work in competition with other laboratories. Efficiency in management The Commission's constant endeavour is to improve further its efficiency in the management of the research programmes. The responsibility for the proper use of public funds rightly imposes constraints; but even these can be made more palatable to researchers if they are properly explained. This is why the Commission has streamlined its regular information services and publications - CORDIS and "RTD Info" in particular - and has also produced the landmark publication on "EC-funded RTD: An insight into the handling of project proposals and an introduction to contract negotiation". This will be followed by further publications describing how the policies and programmes are arrived at in the first place - including a straightforward description of the various decision steps - and a guide to the various sources of information on Community RTD. Here the Commission's endeavour will be, with the help of advice from experts, to simplify and to rationalize. Our new approach to management is not only characterized by openness. It also includes practical steps such as the simplification of the standard proposal application form and the decision to ensure proper rotation among the experts who undertake the important "peer review" of project proposals. The decision to publish calls for proposals on four fixed dates in the year is also significant. It enables companies and laboratories, especially those with limited staff, to focus their interest on the key dates - 15 September, 15 December, 15 March and 15 June. It also facilitates coordination between closely related fields in different research programmes where from now on calls can be made at the same time. Key points for researchers The first formal calls for proposals will be made on 15 December 1994 with a closing date in most cases of 15 March 1995. Two notifications for the first two programmes were already made on 15 September 1994. There will therefore be a great deal of activity over the coming months involving programme committees, preparation of "info-packs", evaluations of proposals, contract negotiations, and so on. For its part, the Commission is concentrating on forward planning. The aim is to ensure that there will be no interruption in Community research when the Third Framework Programme reaches its inevitable end. What can researchers themselves do? They too can help by thinking ahead. Now is the time to study the specific programme texts and the work programmes as soon as they are available. Consider what projects really do fit within their scope and identify partners now. Start to plan proposals. It is obvious that the will be a very large number of applicants in response to the first calls - although it must be remembered that this will not be their last chance; there will be future calls. Proposals which are well presented will therefore be at an advantage. And evaluators will be asked to pay close attention to conformity with the objectives of the programme, to the quality of both the work plan and its managers, to the compatibility with companies' business strategies, as well as to such benefits as training. Looking to the future First and foremost, the Commission wants to see the Fourth Framework Programme implemented efficiently, and from the New Year this should involve the full participation of the new Member States. But there is more to be done. As Professor Ruberti told the Council and Parliament again recently, the fact is that the funds for the Fourth Framework Programme amount to only about 4% of total government spending on R&D in the Union. The Framework Programme funds have an important catalytic and multiplier effect. Nonetheless, there is duplication and scope for rationalization and increasing effectiveness in the remaining 96%. There is a basis for the increased coordination of national and Community efforts, as set out in Article 130h of the Treaty on European Union. The Council has declared its interest. So has the Parliament. Very shortly the Commission will be making practical proposals to turn theory into reality.