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EAGs collaborate for a better Quality of Life

Researchers in the life sciences will no doubt be keeping a keen eye out at the moment for the launch of the European Commission's second round of calls for proposals for the Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme, one of the thematic components of the Fi...
Researchers in the life sciences will no doubt be keeping a keen eye out at the moment for the launch of the European Commission's second round of calls for proposals for the Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources programme, one of the thematic components of the Fifth RTD Framework Programme.

The call will open up new areas of the Quality of Life work programme, a revised version of which has recently been approved by the Programme Committee. The revisions take into account official advice from a variety of quarters, including from the Member States, the Commission services and the Expert Advisory Groups.

It is normal practice for the European Commission to seek advice on how best to develop and fine-tune the different components of EU Framework Programmes on the scale of FP5 (see RCNs 13936, 13883, 13751, and 13763). But what was unusual in the lead-up to the amendments to the Quality of Life work programme this year, was the collaboration of the five Expert Advisory Groups (EAGs) assigned the task of giving considered, independent and authoritative advice on how best to adapt the work programme (or not as the case may be).

'We wanted to ensure the five Expert Advisory Groups would work in a similar way, that they would all have a feeling that they were all contributing to the same programme and not only to their own Key Action', says Mary Kavanagh of the Research Directorate-General, who co-ordinates communications between the Quality of Life EAGs.

The team she works with at the Commission recognised that there are a number of overlapping areas between each Key Action (there are six plus two generic activities) in the Quality of Life Programme: Between health and ageing, the cell factory and food, and food and agriculture, for example. These are therefore, in turn, common areas of concern to all the Quality of Life EAGs.

Delays in the adoption of FP5 last year left the EAGs little time to review the proposed 1999 Work Programme before giving their advice. This year then, knowing that the work programme was due for revision in the autumn, the Commission determined early in the year to help the EAGs become as familiar as possible with the subject matter and the tasks that would be required of them.

So, to keep them informed and to build up momentum, the Commission organised a meeting in Brussels for the chairs and vice chairs of all the Quality of Life EAGs on the day before the programme published its first calls for proposals in March. The Commission aimed to use this meeting to keep the experts well informed on the status of the programme, as well as on more general but relevant issues such as the status of negotiations for RTD cooperation with the Central and Eastern European countries. More elementarily, the meeting was an opportunity to introduce the chairs and vice-chairs to each other.

The meeting inevitably proved valuable, giving the EAGs an opportunity to ask the Commission for information they would find useful and to identify areas of common interest to all the Groups. During April and May the EAGs met individually, reporting the results of this initial inter-EAG meeting to their members and considering the major issues they expected to influence their advice on the work programme. These, they agreed, would be any major social or scientific developments since the work programme was written, and the scientific community's response to the calls for proposals, which would help to identify any problems and reveal which areas were or were not adequately covered.

'Several members of the advisory groups thought it would be a good idea - since they weren't all experts in everything - to hold workshops to which they would invite additional experts to contribute to their reflections and help them to formulate their ideas', Mary Kavanagh says. This led to a number of workshops on the topics of: antibiotic resistance, networking of biovalleys in Europe, genetically modified organisms and ageing.

What is interesting about these workshops - particularly those on GMOs and antibiotic resistance - is that members of several EAGs attended, highlighting the common interest of the topics over much of the programme. 'When looking at the advice that has been given, there's quite clearly a reflection of the discussions in these workshops', says Mary Kavanagh.

Each EAG reconvened early in September, as soon as the results of the first calls for proposals were available. Again they found themselves under pressure to give their advice to the Programme Committee as quickly as possible, so that the work programme could be revised in time for the second call for proposals to be published on schedule in December.

'They really do have to work under stressful circumstances from the point of view that their analysis of the previous calls needs to be done rather quickly, in order to allow the subsequent call to be published on time. Prior to the publication of a call, the Programme Committee must of course give a positive opinion on the Work Programme, and in order to do this they must have adequate time to study the advice as well as the revised Work Programme proposed by the Commission' says Mary Kavanagh.

The Quality of Life EAG advice for the 2000 work programme is already available on-line. Their advice has been taken on board as much as possible in the revised work programme, which will be published any day now, according to the Research Directorate-General.

These changes might at first glance appear more drastic than they actually are, warns Timothy Hall, Head of Unit at the Quality of Life Committee and Advisory Group secretariat. This is because the wording has been tightened up to improve the clarity of the text. 'There's a certain amount of focusing on some areas, following the advice of the EAGs and also in the light of, in some cases, a heavy response to the first call', he hints.

So might such an initiative be taken up on a larger scale, with EAGs from different programmes debating the best way forward for the most crucial overlapping areas between the sub-programmes of future RTD Framework Programmes? Perhaps - but it is easier to facilitate within each programme, says Timothy Hall. Alternatively, he proposed that the European Research Forum, where EAG Chairs are expected to be members, could provide such an opportunity.

The revised Quality of Life work programme has also benefited from the input of two new informal high level groups, which cover the generic activities of the programme. These have convened once so far, in September this year.

The Commission is therefore, not surprisingly, very pleased with this positive outcome and looks forward to the experience being repeated. It is also particularly grateful to the members of the EAGs and the informal high level groups as well as other experts who have participated in the workshops (without remuneration), for giving their time and expertise to this activity. They take the job seriously and do it well, producing sound, well-structured advice.

'In November last year everything was done in much haste. We needed the EAG input very quickly, while they needed to learn to work with each other. After the efforts to spread the work over several months this year, the EAGs were able, in a one-day meeting in September, to go through their Key Actions and come up with concrete advice which did not need much further refining' says Timothy Hall.

The Quality of Life EAGs will meet again next Spring.

Source: European Commission, Research Directorate-General

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