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The European Scientific and Technological Assembly - Interview with Dr. Jan Borgman

The European Science and Technology Assembly was set up on 15 March 1994 to ensure a direct, permanent link between the Commission, the scientific community and the world of industrial research: a link which had previously been missing. The Assembly consists of 100 members, a...

The European Science and Technology Assembly was set up on 15 March 1994 to ensure a direct, permanent link between the Commission, the scientific community and the world of industrial research: a link which had previously been missing. The Assembly consists of 100 members, appointed by the Commission either directly or, in some cases, on a proposal from the leading European scientific and industrial research organizations (European Science Foundation, the Academia Europea, ALLEA, the European Vice-Chancellor's Conference, Euro-Case, EIRMA, IRDAC, UNICE, European Round Table, CERN, ESA, ESO, ESRF, European Trade Union Federation and CODEST). It brings together leading representatives of the scientific community, including six Nobel Prize winners, heads of numerous European and national research centres, and heads of research departments in major industrial groupings. In a recent interview with CORDIS RTD-News, the Chairman of the European Science and Technology Assembly, Dr. Jan Borgman, outlined the current and future role of the Assembly. - Could you outline the achievements of ESTA since its inaugural session on 6 September 1994 ? Immediately after its establishment, ESTA set out to create an organizational infrastructure and an inventory of issues on which to launch actions. One of these actions has been the formulation of opinions on and work plans for the specific programmes of the Fourth Framework Programme. Ten working parties, from within ESTA, were set up to complete this work - which they did within the record time of only five weeks. Though this is an achievement in itself, the significance of advice must be measured by its quality and impact. In this respect, the Commission has implemented several of the specific recommendations made by ESTA. One recommendation in particular, more general in scope, was to more clearly define the objectives of programmes and to pay more attention to cross-directorate collaboration. The Commission's recent introduction of task forces for specific areas responds, to some extent, to this recommendation. In addition, ESTA has formulated advice on the handling of proposals within the Fourth Framework Programme. We have tried to identify some common criteria for the handling of proposals which may help to make the handling of proposals, as well as the decision mechanisms adopted, more transparent. - How does ESTA relate to the Fourth Framework Programme? The sole function of ESTA is to advise the Commission, either on the basis of a specific request or on its own initiative. This means that we have no responsibility for the implementation of the programmes, which is entirely in the hands of the Commission and its various directorates. ESTA has also been asked to assist with the evaluation of programmes. We are, therefore, preparing ourselves to participate in the evaluation process through the examination of the proposal assessment procedures and the decision-making mechanisms. To this end, ESTA has assigned observers to certain programmes, where this has been possible and practicable. - What are your views on the contribution of the Community's Framework Programme to European competitiveness in a global market? It has become fashionable to express doubts as to the economic significance of research which is not close to the market. This happens to be the domain of the Framework Programmes, at least for as long as the European Union is forced to adhere to the dogma of pre-competitiveness. More sophisticated ways of thinking on intra-European competition and external competitiveness are needed in order to allow the European Union to earn a reputation for research which is closer to the market. Such thinking may include, for example, wider acceptance of strategic alliances for large industries, more intensive outsourcing to small- and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs), and greater flexibility in labour relations, resulting in a dynamic labour market and optimum wealth for Europe. In this profit-driven scenario, policy makers are tempted to neglect the long term research as a basis for technological innovation, necessary to safeguard the position of industry at time scales of, say, more than five years. This is the realm of indirect goals where scientists must be encouraged to use their imagination in a climate where the unexpected can happen, and where new generations of scientists and engineers are being trained. On balance, I am inclined to think that the Framework Programme would further gain in effectiveness if the limited funds available were focused on two categories of issues. These are: - Competitiveness of European industry in a few carefully chosen areas in which strategic alliances are necessary and acceptable; - Research aimed at developing profitable innovations within a period of five to ten years. The streamlining and optimization of national regulations, as well as the adoption of European standards, remain important ingredients for the creation of a large internal European market which would result in a more competitive global position. This is not a plea for a drastic re-organization or simplification of the Framework Programme, but rather an attempt to define broad objectives and categorize most of the present content in a transparent way. - Could you summarize the work of ESTA over the next six months and state what the priorities will be and how they will be approached? ESTA has formulated a work plan with five, more or less independent, subjects. In each of these subject areas, working parties have been established within ESTA's Bureau. In parallel, a flexible infrastructure for ESTA is being set up. The five subjects of the work plan are: - Evaluation of programmes in the Fourth Framework Programme as a follow-up to earlier advice on the handling of proposals; - "Coordination through Cooperation", a theme, introduced by the former Commissioner Ruberti and likely to become the subject of some clarifying initiatives. A first working party, investigating possible initiatives by national research councils, has been set up and others may follow; - Development of effective relationships between academic and industrial research. The mixed composition of ESTA, which includes scientists from academia and industry, is an excellent starting point for a study on this subject; - The Fifth Framework Programme. ESTA will not duplicate the many studies which are being volunteered in Europe, but will rather try to synthesize the more important ones while providing useful links with the national foresight and Delphi-type exercises; - Development of a procedural framework for ESTA members who wish to take exploratory initiatives which do not fit in directly with one of the subjects mentioned above. For two of these initiatives a full working party has been set up ("Alternatives to magnetic confinement in hot plasma fusion" and "The East-Asian challenge"). Other initiatives are in preparation. With regard to priorities, it is clear that the Fifth Framework Programme will be high on the agenda. The Commission's timetable requires that input be available not later than April 1996, resulting in a formal proposal from the Commission later that year. In addition, ESTA is likely to be requested for advice on issues which, by their nature, have a short turn-around time: the task force concept and the mid-term topping-up of the financial envelop of the Fourth Framework Programme, for example. As much as ESTA might prefer to concentrate on its workplan, it is necessary to accommodate these requests.