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European project looks to the future in 2010

Predicting the future is a notoriously tricky endeavour shrouded in secrecy and superstition. Nevertheless a European Commission funded project is attempting to do just that, identifying the scientific and social developments that will shape the Europe of 2010.

The 'Futures' ...
Predicting the future is a notoriously tricky endeavour shrouded in secrecy and superstition. Nevertheless a European Commission funded project is attempting to do just that, identifying the scientific and social developments that will shape the Europe of 2010.

The 'Futures' project, organised by the Institute for Prospective and Technological Studies was launched in mid-1998 to explore the effects of technological, economic, political and social drivers on society.

Nearly 200 experts brought together by IPTS, one of the eight institutes of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, have identified the issues that will have a major impact on the way we work and live during the next ten years. The project team must now begin the task of identifying where they will lead us.

At a recent conference in Brussels, over 600 decision-makers and experts were invited to help the project start mapping out possibilities. Among those present were Philippe Busquin, the European Commissioner for Research, and Professor Jos‚ Mariano Gago, the Portuguese Minister for Science and Technology and President in Office of the Research Council.

'What we are trying to do with this project is to set out an overview of these and other challenges and get them on the political agenda,' he said. 'We want to raise awareness that we are on the point of quite radical change and we need to look for new forms of organising our economic, social and governance systems. The project is looking at issues distinctive to Europe, and how these should be addressed.

'For example, what we have in Europe, which they don't have in the United States to the same extent, is cultural difference. Cultural difference can be a disadvantage, but they can also be an incredible breeding ground for ideas, and we should exploit them.'

Presenting the Futures Project, IPTS Director, Dr Jean-Marie Cadiou said European lifestyles are already changing with developments in information and communication technologies, together with breakthroughs in life sciences. The single currency, the enlargement of the European Union, demographic changes, sustainability concerns and the wider context of globalisation are transforming our economy. The fact that these changes are occurring simultaneously and impacting each other brings new challenges to policy areas, in particular those relating to technology, competitiveness and employment. So it is these areas on which the Futures project will focus.

Chairing the opening session, Commissioner Busquin stated that research and technology have a definitive role to play in the development of new forms of knowledge and ultimately the creation of wealth and jobs. Arguing again for the creation of a European research area, he called for new synergies, particularly in the areas of aerospace and biotechnology. 'Europe's scientific and technological potential must be conserved, strengthened and fully exploited'.

Although the coordination of national policies is foreseen in the Treaty (the legal framework of the European Union), Europe has never established real priorities for research within the EU institutional framework, said Jos‚ Mariano Gago. The Framework Programme accounts for only five per cent of total research spending in the EU, and the Portuguese minister asserted: 'In my view, the other 95 per cent also falls within the competence of the EU and progress needs to be made in that direction'. However the decision to open national research programmes is a political one which Mr Gago said should be left for the Heads of Government in the European council.

European Parliament Vice-President Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca added that financial commitment is needed as well as political will. 'No matter how many good ideas there may be on the European Research Area, they will come to nothing if there is not the political will to make a real financial effort.'

Nobel Prizewinner and Professor of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robery Solow, said the European Union had much to gain from greater coordination in research fields, including large scale savings, eliminating duplication and improving the management of financial resources. Offering an American perspective, he said in the USA research priorities are set and coordinated at federal level. 'Imagine what would happen if the 50 federate states were all to take part in decision-making?' He said centralised guidelines are indispensable, adding; 'This is a very big problem for the EU.'

The American perspective provoked much debate among participants. Max Metzger of the Permanent Representation of Germany said: 'It is easy to see how coordination, such as there is in America, will benefit Europe, particularly in the Information Society. We are already seeing the need for the harmonisation of standards in the area of electronic commerce for example. The danger is that if we don't cooperate, we will fall further behind.'

After two days of debates and panel discussions, Jean-Ren‚ Fourtou, Vice Chairman of the company of the French pharmaceutical and agricultural businesses Aventis, brought the conference to a close, saying Europe should rise to the challenges of globalisation. The trend in Europe is for companies in the life sciences to merge, allowing them to reap the benefits of shared development costs and a stronger competitive position (Aventis was formed by the merger of two companies Hoechst and Rhone-Poulen). With greater cooperation, perhaps coordinated a European body, the countries of the EU could reap similar benefits, he said.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, agreed that all of Europe would benefit from better cooperation in research. He spoke of the need to work with the pre-accession countries waiting to join the European Union. These countries have full participation rights in Community Framework Programmes, and the Spanish MEP said: 'Prosperity can be achieved if they become part of the growth dynamics of the rest of the EU, if the guidelines and suggestions of the Futures project are taken on board and implemented.'

Speaking of the importance of keeping up with developments in information and communications technologies, he added: 'There is an explosion of opportunity that has never existed before. New technologies are the way forward for a European knowledge-based society to become a promising reality for the future.'

Professor Jarl Forst‚n, Deputy Director General of the Technical research Centre in Finland added that cooperation should extend beyond the borders of Europe. 'We should be talking about cooperation with the United States and Japan. We could all benefit from learning from each other's strengths, cooperation and access to technologies.'

The Information Society has taken off in a huge way in Finland following the success of high-tech companies such as Nokia, and Prof Forst‚n continued: 'Science and technology are not very high on the political agenda in Europe. The situation is completely different in Finland. The Parliament has an active group defining strategies for the future.'

The Futures Project continues for the duration of the Fifth Framework Programme, finishing in 2002. A series of 11 reports have already been published. The result, according to IPTS, is 'a major benchmarking and prospective analysis carried out at full European scale.'

Source: IPTS

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