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ERA full steam ahead

The first concrete steps towards establishing a European Research Area have been laid, following the endorsement of Commissioner Busquin's initiative by the Research Council, meeting in Luxembourg on 15 June.

Research ministers approved the Commission's proposals for encourag...
The first concrete steps towards establishing a European Research Area have been laid, following the endorsement of Commissioner Busquin's initiative by the Research Council, meeting in Luxembourg on 15 June.

Research ministers approved the Commission's proposals for encouraging greater cooperation between national research programmes, beginning with the establishment of a high speed trans-European network connecting research institutes, universities and other educational establishments under the Géant programme.

The Council called upon the Commission, with the support of the European Investment Bank, to set in place by the end of 2001, a broadband network with a speed of 2.5 gigabits per second, moving gradually towards a speed of 100 gigabits per second.

Council President José Mariano Gago said this network would bring policies for the Information Society and the European Research Area together. 'We need to establish a closer link between policy for the Information Society and the European Research Area.'

All ministers agreed that there was a need to avoid possible social and economic exclusion resulting from unequal access to the educational and technological tools of the Information Society. Sweden, Luxembourg, Greece, and Ireland noted networks such as Géant could be used to bring societies together, and possibly extend beyond the EU on projects such as using telematics in medicine. Others, particularly the Netherlands, stressed that the link between the public and private sector research should be strengthened.

The Council also welcomed Busquin's proposals included in the document 'First steps towards a European Research Area', for launching the benchmarking of national policies, establishing centres of excellence, and for encouraging the mobility of researchers, inviting the Commission to present a set of indicators and assessment method by October.

Following the endorsement of the Lisbon summit, the Council also welcomed moves towards establishing a cheap and easy-to-use- Community patent by the end of 2001.

At the final press conference, President José Mariano Gago promised the Council would ensure the measures approved at Lisbon are put in place. 'In the follow up to the Lisbon summit, further progress will be monitored by the Council every Spring.'

While the measures proposed will go some way towards making the ERA a reality, ministers said the important issue at this stage is setting objectives. 'This is a question of political will, not figures,' said French minister Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg.

Questioned on his plans for the forthcoming French Presidency, Mr Schwartzenberg said establishing the ERA would be a priority. He put forward ideas to set up a European Academy of Science, and an agency for the dissemination of the results of European research along the lines of the Alphagalileo system which promotes British, German and French research. When questioned on the cost of such initiatives, he pointed to EU countries such as Finland which successfully spend large amounts on research, promising he would try to find the necessary budget.

Research Infrastructures in the Life programme

Ministers also discussed the problems of financing research infrastructures in the quality of life and management of living resources programme, following problems encountered by two major research institutions, the European Mutant Mouse Archive (EMMA) in Italy, and the European Bio-Informatic Institute (EBI) in the UK. During the transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Framework Programme, these two institutions lost the possibility of benefiting from Community co-funding for their research infrastructures.

Summing up the Council's conclusions, Mr Gago underlined the importance of work in these fields - genomic research - and invited the Commission to find a solution to ensure that work will continue. The Commission and other Member States noted that the solution should not be based on solving the problems of these two institutions alone, which would appear discriminatory. Mr Busquin said the Commission would consider the possibility of the intervention of the European Investment Bank.

The first results of the sequencing of the human genome will shortly be available, and the Presidency considers 'post-genome' research of vital importance for the future. Mr Busquin announced that in October the Commission will present a new initiative on the theme 'exploiting the human genome'. This initiative should free up resources for generic research in the Quality of life programme.

A space strategy for Europe

Commissioner Busquin also reported on the Commission's progress on defining a European space strategy, in collaboration with the European Space Agency. A communication will be submitted to the Council for their consideration at its next session.

International Cooperation

International cooperation outside the EU was also discussed, in the context of synergies between the EU's Fifth RTD Framework programme and the MEDA programme (cooperation with Mediterranean countries). The Council approved the progress already made in this area, and encouraged the Commission to follow up the realisation of joint activities between EU countries and Mediterranean partners in the context of the European Research Area.

Genetically Modified Organisms

The German delegation brought up the subject of the release of genetically modified organisms, noting this could be a subject to be tackled with the context of the ERA. The delegation invited the Commission to consider their proposal for the creation of a centralised authorisation procedure for GMOs.

Source: European Council

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