One of the core aims of the European Research Area (ERA) is to address the fragmentation of research efforts, which continues to afflict Europe's competitiveness. Reducing fragmentation is also among the goals of the NIS-NEST project, which is looking eastwards to the countries of the former Soviet Union, where some of the 'crème-de-la-crème' of European frontier research resides. Funded under the 'New and emerging technologies' (NEST) section of Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the project brings together partners from the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus and Republic of Moldova. The aim is to strengthen cooperation between researchers in these countries and their colleagues in the West. Greece and France are also partners in the project. 'Because of historical reasons, these two parties have worked separately, but we now believe the time is ripe to achieve scientific integration that is mutually beneficial,' Maria Koutrokoi of the National Documentation Centre in Greece and NIS-NEST coordinator, told CORDIS News. The project focuses on bridging the gap between researchers in the areas of frontier and high risk research, since it is believed that there is a huge untapped potential here in the countries of the former Soviet Union. 'We know that in these countries there have been great achievements in high risk areas of research such as aerospace,' explained Ms Koutrokoi. Vadim Korablev of St Petersburg State Technical University, one of the partnering organisations, agrees. 'Traditionally, we have a high level of excellence in the area of basic research, in mathematics and physics. But we have some problems accessing the latest technology and equipment.' Professor Korablev believes that the project is helping to provide that access, and, in doing so, bringing about scientific excellence. 'If we can combine our high level of professionalism in the domain of fundamental science with the technology available in the EU, we will have the opportunity to obtain very high results in a very short time.' In addition to saving time, such collaboration will also save money, says Professor Korablev. Although the initial idea was to provide for better collaboration within the NEST programme, the project has since extended its mandate to the whole of the EU research framework programme. 'We understood that high risk research is found in all the programmes of the framework programme as a horizontal area,' explained Ms Koutrokoi. One of the main activities of NIS-NEST is a mapping exercise to identify researchers and research organisations working in exploratory research areas in Eastern European countries. The aim is to create a database to assist both EU and Eastern European researchers in identifying potential partners for EU projects during the course of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Ms Koutrokoi emphasised that the database will be complementary to existing partner search tools. The project has also organised a series of information days on FP7, and has started workshops to help increase participation in calls for proposals under FP7. 'The researchers are starting to get a clearer picture of the framework programme; previously they thought they couldn't participate and they weren't too sure of the rules,' Ms Koutrokoi told CORDIS News. Ms Koutrokoi believes that these activities are paving the way for a much higher level of participation in FP7 than in previous programmes (under FP6, Ukraine participated in only nine projects). 'We are optimistic that the project is laying the foundations for better collaboration,' she said, predicting that closer collaboration 'will help get the juices flowing, resulting in further advances in many different research fields'. In addition to strengthening collaboration between East and West, the project is also expected to help put a stop to the mass exodus of scientists and engineers from former Soviet countries that has taken place over the last two decades. 'Brain drain is a real problem in Russia,' Dr Svetlana Mamakina of Moscow State University told CORDIS News. 'This project is trying to stop it by giving scientists a chance to work from their own institutions while collaborating with EU partners. This will help keep our scientists at home.' The university has some 200 agreements with universities and science centres all over the world, including some in the EU. 'We hope that this project can broaden that cooperation,' said Dr Mamakina. Although also optimistic that, overall, FP7 will benefit researchers and research institutions in these countries, Professor Alexander Belyaev of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, a NIS-NEST partner, wonders whether the European Research Council (ERC) grants, which oblige a researcher to work in an EU Member State host organization, could lead to further brain drain. But other partners contest this view. 'This is not brain drain to another continent,' Ms Koutrokoi points out. 'It is better that our neighbours work with Europe rather than across the Atlantic,' added Paul Jamet of France's National Contact Point.
Belarus, Greece, France, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine