Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Interview with Pat Rabbitte, President of the Research Council

Mr. Pat Rabbitte, Irish Minister for Commerce, Science and Technology, gave the following interview to CORDIS, the Community's Research and Development Information Service, on 9 December 1996. The interview covers a number of topics which were central to his Presidency of the ...
Mr. Pat Rabbitte, Irish Minister for Commerce, Science and Technology, gave the following interview to CORDIS, the Community's Research and Development Information Service, on 9 December 1996. The interview covers a number of topics which were central to his Presidency of the Research Council, and also underlines the importance he attaches to developing innovation at European and national levels.

- As Chairman of the Research Council, what do you consider to be the main achievements of the Irish Presidency in the domain of science, technology, research, innovation and development?

. TSE: The Irish Presidency has been very very conscious of the BSE/CJD concerns all over Europe. The Council approved conclusions, which include funding for a major research action plan on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE), including BSE and human related diseases. The conclusions take on board the report of a high-level scientific group chaired by the Austrian scientist Dr. Weissman, which recommended targeted research in specific areas. I have no doubt that news of new funding for research on this important topic will be welcomed by consumer, agricultural and health interests and will also act to restore consumer confidence.

. Mid-term Review: The agreement by Research Ministers at Council on 5 December which will deliver additional funding for research under the Fourth Framework Programme of ECU 100 million for the period 1997/1998 is a significant achievement, given the constraints of the Community's Financial Perspectives. The Commission's proposal to provide ECU 700 million additional funding for the current Fourth Framework Programme, as part of a review process agreed by Research Ministers in 1994, had been rendered redundant by the ECOFIN Council's decision not to breach the Community's Financial Perspectives. However, it was possible to salvage some of the proposal by targeting additional monies across a number of specific programmes. I am particularly pleased that Ministers agreed to provide some funding for research into the detection of landmines.

. Fifth Framework Programme: The launch of discussions on the European Union's Fifth Framework Programme of Research and Technological Development and Demonstration, covering 1998/2002, during the Irish Presidency was a major achievement. The Council engaged in debate to decide the guidelines to serve as the basis for a detailed Commission proposal for the Fifth Framework Programme due next Spring.

. Innovation: I am happy to say that my continued efforts to have the EU Action Plan on Innovation completed during the Irish Presidency have paid dividends. The Plan was presented to the December Research Council and, later this week, will be presented to the European Summit in Dublin. The Plan is a comprehensive response to the need to put innovation, in all its diversity and complexity, at the heart of industrial and economic policy.

. Irish Presidency Initiatives: Apart from the foregoing items, the Irish Presidency took two Presidency initiatives to coincide with National Presidency objectives - drugs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The drugs issue is a major priority for the Irish Government and the initiative relates to the contribution which the European scientific community can make to the fight against drug abuse and detection. The outputs from a very successful high-level workshop on "Research on the Medical, Socio-Economic and Detection Issues of Drug Abuse", which was held in Brussels as part of the Irish Presidency Initiative, formed the basis of Council conclusions which were agreed by Research Ministers last week and will in turn feed into the Dublin Summit on 13-14 December.

On SMEs, the Research Council approved a set of Presidency-initiated conclusions which aim at making it easier for SMEs to participate in Framework Programme activities. This is an important achievement which recognizes the significant contribution that SMEs can make to economic growth, and the fact that technology is vital if SMEs are to make that contribution.

. Other Matters:

. JRC: The Council adopted conclusions on the progress made by the JRC (Joint Research Centre) in implementing the 1994 Council decision on the Fourth Framework Programme which required the JRC to adopt a more market-orientated approach. These conclusions will require the JRC to submit its future strategy plans during 1997.

. Euro-Mediterranean: Ireland will chair an important meeting later this week dealing with S&T cooperation between EU Member States and Third Countries in the Mediterranean Region. This Euro-Med Monitoring Committee meeting will establish Terms of Reference for future cooperation, a Research Work Programme and so on. The meeting is a breakthrough in that it puts these arrangements on a permanent footing. Up to now, we have had to rely largely on the goodwill of the last three Presidencies: Spain, France and Italy - coincidentally, all Mediterranean countries.

. EU/South Africa: Negotiations on a bilateral S&T cooperation agreement between the EU and South Africa were successfully concluded and I, as President-in-Office on behalf of the Council, jointly signed the agreement at the December Research Council, together with Commissioner Edith Cresson and the South African Ambassador to the European Union.

. Conclusions: I believe that the Irish Presidency will be seen as an unqualified success: producing key strategy papers and moving the debate on in relation to the Fifth Framework Programme and Innovation; breaking deadlock in others and achieving real progress; promoting essential research themes such as BSE and getting full support for key measures on drugs and SMEs.

- The White Paper on Science Technology and Innovation which you published in October provides a blueprint for Ireland: could you define the relationship between Irish and European Union developments in this area?

The White Paper is a culmination of a process of three years of national review of science and technology developments in Ireland. An Advisory Group began its work in early 1994 and published its independent review in early 1995. When that was presented to me, I immediately set about having its recommendations examined and, at the same time, standing back to take a broad view of how science and technology contributes to our development and taking a philosophical look at the reasons for public involvement in S&T. What comes out, therefore, is a very fundamental examination of Irish science and technology and an identification of the priority themes to be addressed.

Somewhat remarkably, although maybe not, the EU Green Paper on Innovation analysed the problem from a European perspective and came up with almost the same issues. As the Green Paper rightly pointed out, therefore, all the issues can be tackled at European, regional and national level.

While the Framework Programme will be the main tool for the strengthening of European research, there will always be a need to develop the national system of innovation, so that it can build on the strengths and tackle the weaknesses at local level. Otherwise there is a risk of a concentration of resources in certain directions and a "brain-drain" to the detriment of local and regional development. Structural Funds have been critical to the regeneration of Irish science and technology over the past decade and will continue to be necessary if both Ireland and, as a consequence, European research is to have an impact.

- The deliberations on the Fifth Framework Programme - the number of specific programmes and budget -are currently underway: how do you see the debate developing and how will the eventual format of the programme be influenced by the Innovation (Green Paper) Action Plan, the mid-term review of the Fourth Framework Programme, the Task Forces on Research Priorities and BSE?

The Irish Presidency sought to clarify and develop attitudes in regard to the Fifth Framework Programme. The Commissions strategy document "Inventing Tomorrow" formed the basis of Council discussions thus far, together with a further Working Paper provided by the Commission for the Council's most recent debate in December.

The overriding criterion for the Fifth Framework Programme is scientific excellence, but the following criteria will also be important:

. Added value at European level;
. Sustainable development and growth;
. Economic and social cohesion;
. International competitiveness;
. Responsiveness to needs of citizens and society as a whole.
. Optimize SME involvement.

In formulating its proposal for a Fifth Framework Programme, the Commission will, no doubt, take on board its own ideas in the Innovation Action Plan. Issues such as flexibility and coordination were highlighted in the context of discussions on research priorities including TSE. These aspects will, I believe, also have to be addressed in the Fifth Framework Programme proposal.

- Ireland is experiencing strong economic growth at present: what has been the contribution of STI to this development and do you see it as a model for other Member States and those countries wishing to join the Union?

Ireland is clearly showing the benefits of a very competitive economy. There are many factors to that competitiveness, but as knowledge, research and innovation become the driving forces of strong company growth, obviously our investment in science, research, technology and the associated skills are contributing hugely to a strong industrial and export performance and especially to our success in attracting the major high-tech multinational companies. Industrial R&D in Ireland has been growing at a rate of 17% per annum since the beginning of the decade. Because of the presence in Ireland of high quality universities and technical colleges, and the skills' levels emerging from them, Ireland is a very attractive base for companies in electronics, pharmaceuticals, software and other technology-based businesses and is creating thousands of new, sustainable jobs every year.

- How can STI improve European competitiveness and what measures do you think will enhance the competitive advantage of European business?

Leading on from the situation in Ireland, I think it is clear that Europe is not short of scientific excellence or research endeavour, but the challenge is to translate that into leading-edge companies which have a leadership in the world market through the quality of their research and technology and through their commitment to innovation. There are probably three critical areas to be continuously addressed. Firstly, we require a strong awareness and attitude to innovation in the type of businesses that we create and seek to develop. This has a lot to do with the type of commercial regulations which the Government and EU put in place, a good example being the biotechnology patents legislation. Secondly, we must devise means to transfer the excellent research and skills out of the Third Level and State Institutes into the commercial world. And finally, for risky and expensive research to turn into marketable products, we need a financial regime which encourages and rewards investment in R&D.

- The Commission's Innovation Green Paper provides a way forward for Europe: what do you consider to be the tangible commercial and societal impacts of the Innovation process and how will its success be gauged?

Taking Ireland as an example, the object of Government obviously is to create a higher standard of living for all, consistent with a balanced spread of the increased wealth generated. Europe has two choices. It cannot compete on costs, it must therefore compete in terms of quality and innovation. Whether innovation is measured in terms of research, new technology or otherwise, we can either lead the world, or we can adapt to the innovation of others. That will be the commercial measurement of how innovative Europe is. And society will be the better for it in terms of jobs saved or created; new cleaner/safer processes; better ways of tackling the environmental degradation we see about us; less isolation because of the Information Society and a better quality of life than would otherwise be the case. In any set of circumstances, there is a balance to be struck between the inevitable progress, for example, in information technology, new chemicals, developments in the bio-sciences, with the need to allay public concerns about, and common access to, these developments.

- Financing innovation from the private sector is increasingly perceived as a necessary way forward given that public funding has its limits and limitations. This has been the case in the USA. Do you think this can be emulated in Europe and how would you encourage it?

R&D and Innovation is about risk and reward. Our stock exchange systems, whether at national or EU level, have to prove amenable to research and technology-based companies. There is no doubt that we are at a serious disadvantage with the situation in the US and Asia in this regard. If we don't do so, the reality is that the fruits of our excellent research will ultimately flow into those economies. Your question implies that private sector financing is the solution to the problem. And so it is to a large extent, but, in the area of R&D, because of its long-term, risky and expensive nature, it is a legitimate area for Government to be involved, whether it is funding the R&D capability in firms or providing the research and R&D skills which emanate from our Third Level colleges.

Source: Office of Pat Rabbitte, Irish Minister for Commerce, Science and Technology
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