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Everybody's talking ERA

As the debate on the Commission's Communication on a European Research Area (ERA) is taken up in the European Parliament and soon in Council, the European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, is continuing his mission to get as much feedback as possible on his plan.

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As the debate on the Commission's Communication on a European Research Area (ERA) is taken up in the European Parliament and soon in Council, the European Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, is continuing his mission to get as much feedback as possible on his plan.

Meeting recently with key representatives from industry, academia and politics, including the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the regions, Commission Busquin stressed the importance of setting up an ERA.

'The initiative for a European Research Area which I am in favour of putting in place has a triple objective:
- to contribute to the creation of the most favourable environment for research in Europe;
- to encourage the improvement of all the factors which make up the richness of this research, and
- to reinforce Europe as an innovating area - because without research, there's no innovation.'

At the heart of the philosophy of a European Research Area is growing concern over increasing differences in investment in research and technology in the European Union, in comparison to the USA and Japan. By pooling Member States' resources and streamlining national approaches to R&D at a European level, the Commission believes the EU has a chance to make up the growing intercontinental gap in expertise.

The Commission's Communication on an ERA has already been discussed at high level at the informal meeting of the Portuguese presidency, at a meeting for ministers of industry in Noordwijk, the Netherlands and at the special European summit in Lisbon. And, to bring the debate to as many people as possible, the Research Directorate-General has set up an on-line discussion forum on the ERA, where those interested can comment and be answered by the Commissioner himself.

While Mr Busquin is grateful for the interest his Communication has received so far, he is continuing to encourage the debate. He has sought comments from more than 600 heads of business, who, he told participants at the May meeting, appear to support the philosophy of an ERA:

'The number of replies and their nature show there is great interest in this debate and great attention is being given to the realisation of the objective.'

The seminar was divided into working groups to focus on the four factors which Busquin believes are fundamental for a successful ERA:

- material resources and their coordination (chaired by Professor A. Quintanilha);
- favourable conditions for research and the technological development (chaired by Dr Wim Phillips);
- improvement of human resources (chaired by Professor Jens Rostrup-Nielsen);
- research, ethics and society (chaired by Professor Theresa Rees).

The reports from this meeting will contribute to the continuing debate, particularly in forthcoming discussions in the European Parliament, which will discuss the ERA during its plenary session in Strasbourg in mid-May and in the Council on 15 June.

EP's research committee welcomes the Communication

Meanwhile, the European Parliament's committee on industry, external trade, research and energy recently welcomed the Commission's Communication on an ERA as a starting point for a far-reaching political and scientific debate on the creation of a real European research and innovation community.

'There is still no European Union in various areas of commerce and research. In practice, many Member States of the European Union are still islands that regard each other as competitors rather than partners. The technological European Union is still lagging behind European and Monetary Union. The various Member States would do well to abandon their techno-nationalism and do more to create a European Union in the technological field as well.

'The Commission is absolutely right to launch the debate on the creation of the European Research Area at this time,' the committee concluded.

The committee called on Member States to aim to set aside at least 3% of their GDP for research. Members of the committee appeared particularly troubled by Member States' failure to recognise diplomas from other countries, and the unnecessary legal obstacles to establishing patents.

It also agreed that research needs more resources which cannot come solely from public authorities and that considerable political efforts must be made to improve the preconditions for increasing private sector contributions in this sphere and raising public awareness.

MEPs lauded the Marie Curie Mobility programme as one of the most effective and successful parts of the Fourth and Fifth RTD Framework programmes, which should be strengthened and expanded in the future. In particular, they suggested it include longer term fellowships for post doctoral scientists, return fellowships to encourage reintegration of researchers to their countries of origin, and senior fellowships to provide opportunities for established scientists and engineers from major European research centres to engage in setting up start-up and spin-off businesses.

Summarising, the committee said:

'A debate on a new research area must consider not only improvements to infrastructure and the optimisation of existing infrastructure: it must also and above all consider the substantive qualities of the European resarch area. It must be a debate about the deployment of people, about talent, about creativity, about mobilising specific talent. What major, strategically relevant research projects should be established and what should be done to translate scientific work into competitiveness, employment and prosperity? New technological research programmes should be based on the outcome of this debate.

'The Commission's Communication is important and somewhat alarming. It chronicles the relative decline of research expenditure and activity in the European Union by comparison with the USA and Japan in recent years, at a time at which the gap should have been reducing rather than growing wider, if the future prosperity of the Union is to rest on secure foundations in a knowledge-based economy.'

Eurohorcs pledge support

Eurohorcs, the informal grouping of the heads of the research councils in Europe, has also announced its support of the ERA concept. This is significant as the groups' main mandate is to comment on organisational strategies for European science, and it is mainly interested in how the direction of the Community Framework programmes can be related to national scientific priorities.

Avoiding duplication of research programmes and providing better coordination of the national research programmes could make a major, and desirable contribution to the ERA, Eurohorcs announced.

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