Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

CORDIS meets Philippe Busquin

Even from the energetic way he shakes your hand, you can sense a tangible enthusiasm emanating from the new European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin. He looks younger than his 58 years suggest, and there is something quite engaging about the eagerness with which he...
Even from the energetic way he shakes your hand, you can sense a tangible enthusiasm emanating from the new European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin. He looks younger than his 58 years suggest, and there is something quite engaging about the eagerness with which he has embraced his new portfolio.

After seven tough years as President of Belgium's French-speaking Socialist Party, Busquin certainly appears to be relishing the EU challenge. With only a few months to familiarise himself with his subject, Busquin has already identified several areas in which to devote his energies.

Principal among these is the creation of a common research area in Europe, facilitating the flow of information and researchers. 'Personally what I want to do is develop a common area for research', he said. 'It is a way of maximising research potential, not only at the level of the Commission, but also at the level of the Member States.

'Researchers should be able to move freely and work in other countries, but there are problems with differences in the financial, tax and education systems. We must look at how we can get the conditions right so that good researchers are available everywhere in Europe.

'For example, in some subjects we can use centres of excellence and make sure that European researchers are more mobile in Europe. If you have two centres of excellence of the same value, very often European researchers will feel more attracted to a centre of excellence in the United States rather than Europe. We should try to see why we are faced with this and what sort of solution we should come up with.'

One way of doing this, says Busquin, is to ensure the public is better informed about research. 'I think there is not enough knowledge among the European public about the importance of research, and this is true in all Member States. CORDIS has a role to play here - CORDIS and new technologies such as the Internet can be useful in all countries, to make sure people are getting informed, for example about SMEs, about universities, and about centres of excellence.

Only four percent of European research funding is allocated at EU level, and Busquin is aware there is a limit to what the Commission can do. He says: 'The Commission can't do it on its own. We have to work at a European level together with universities and other actors.

'If the European Commission were to take on the Member States' responsibilities it would diminish their quality, whereas we must augment that quality. The Commission gives added value for research, but it must not substitute for the efforts of individual Member States. This is the principle of subsidiarity. The Commission's role is to bring the different levels together, encouraging people to work together.'

Europe needs to collaborate on research projects if it is to compete with the USA where typically it has been seen to lag behind. As well as increasing partnership efforts, Busquin intends to increase the number of researchers per thousand inhabitants, and to stem the 'brain drain' to the US. He concedes that to do this, the status of researchers should be enhanced, and issues such as working conditions and intellectual property rights need to be resolved. 'We do have the human resources, the human potential. We've got good scientists in our universities, but people are not aware of this potential, and it is not being taken advantage of. In the States people are aware of what they've got.'

This is a responsibility to be shared between all the European institutions and Busquin has repeatedly stated his commitment to working with the Parliament and the Council. 'There is a political dimension to research, and this is something that must be discussed with the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.'

Another of his passions is encouraging young people to become involved in science. Not only should more students be taking the science options at school and university, but Busquin would also like to see the general level of understanding increase. 'We have to make sure that in Europe people get a taste for sciences,' he said. 'In my generation in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was really a will to make headway with sciences. Nowadays very often science has a negative impact because all people talk about is the depletion of the ozone layer, food testing, climate changes, the environment and so on. I think we have to make sure that the sciences do regain their positive image because I do believe that knowledge leads to democracy.

'I am happy to see initiatives such as the Young Scientists Competition that recently took place in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was young scientists getting together, bringing together their research projects.' At this point his enthusiasm overtook him and he broke into a long and detailed description of the competition and the benefits it brought.

Although he has been a politician for the past 20 years, Busquin's background is in science, and he claims to have kept a close eye on research issues throughout his career. 'I am both a politician and a scientist,' he says. Born in Feluy, near Nivelles, he studied physics at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), followed by postgraduate courses in philosophy and environmental studies. He spent nine years teaching science at the ULB, and became the Socialist Party's expert on all matters scientific.

By taking the job of European Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin follows in the footsteps of fellow Belgian Commissioner Etienne Davignon who introduced the First Framework Programme. Coming from a relatively small country, both men must be aware of the benefits accruing from collaborating with other European nations, and this European consciousness is what Busquin sees as one of his principal qualities in the job. 'You have to have a strong European will to start with,' he says. 'You've got to make sure that you can see beyond your national constraints. Not necessarily do away with them but go further.'

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