Sophia-Antipolis, 1-2 April 1996
At the European Council in Corfu, June 1994, the European Union confirmed the strategic character of a harmonious transition towards the information society. The G7 summit in Brussels, February 1995, underlined the necessity for all countries, including the developing countries and economies in transition, to participate in this general movement. The first forum on this theme was held in Brussels, last June, between the European Union and the Central and Eastern European Countries. More specifically concerning the countries of the Mediterranean bassin, the communication networks had been a major topic at the seminar on "The Europe of Research and the Mediterranean", organized under the French Presidency in March 1995 in Sophia-Antipolis. Since then, the Euro-Mediterranean Conference which was held in Barcelona 27-28 November 1995, adopted the MEDA action programme for an amount of 4.685 MECUs including Information Technologies. Finally, the Italian Presidency of the European Union will organize a forum at ministerial level on "Information Society: communication, education and training, research" 30-31 May 1996.
It is unusual for a strategy which was very technological in its beginings to attract the authorities' attention to such an extent. In fact, if its benefits are admitted at present, this evolution is not without certain risks: increasing social problems in every country between those mastering the new technologies and those who couldn't adapt to the new conditions; growing distance between countries who committed themselves in the development of fast growing activities and those which devoted themselves to more traditional fields of activity. In particular, the risks of a split between the two coasts of the Mediterranian are too numerous not to pay attention to the consequences of an uncoordinated burst of these new technologies in the region.
It is from this point of view that researchers could and should play a major role:
a) Although the available technologies allow to make the first steps to the Information Society, multiple problems remain (multilinguality, security...), or will occur in future in this domain in rapid evolution.
In order to reduce the duration of the present transition towards the Information Society, it is essential that researchers be very early involved in development of the tools of the future.
b) Research can also be a privileged vehicle for dissemination of new technologies and their transfer to production and services. Researchers are used to new technologies, they need modern means of communication in order to stay in contact with international research. These researchers form a pioneering user community whose experience can easily be transferred to education and made available for private companies and government if the mechanisms of dissemination are concurrently put in place.
Researchers have already began to establish links with their economic and social environment (creation of tourism servers, telemedicine demonstrations, services for companies...). These examples can and should multiply and spread over all fields of activities in production and services. Moreover, by creating spin-off companies, researchers can contribute to the renovation of the industrial fabric in their country, all the more because the barriers to access a market in the field of software products and information services are still relatively weak.
In a more general way, it could be neccessary to think about the contribution of R&D systems to the reinforcement of the innovation potential and the economic development of the Mediterranean countries.
c) more specifically, the networks can contribute to reduce certain handicaps for research in less developed countries:
- the difficulty to bring together researchers in a sufficient number to create teams of critical size;
- the lack of powerful computers and more generally the lack of scientific equipment;
- the lack of sufficiently complete and updated documentation bases. In particular, the evolution of the costs of scientific journals, without regard to their number, makes them more and more inaccessible for institutes of average importance. The virtual library will soon be the only solution for accessing good documentation at moderate prices.
With the development of teleworking, the networks present significant advantages in terms of investment costs in all these points.
The barriers at the entry of this very competitive international research circle will not completely disappear, but like in the developed countries, they are rather of human nature.
In this context, the educational factor seems to become highly important. The countries south of the Mediterranean have a strong academic tradition but suffer from severe emigration of scientists, estimated at around 10,000 people per year. Providing better access to universities and research laboratories of the international scientific community by electronic means will help to slow such a movement.
Although the importance of the transition to the Information Society in terms of economic and social development is clearly identified, the potential contribution made by research and its specific needs have still to be specified. For that purpose, the "European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics" (ERCIM) organizes under the aegis of the European Commission a workshop on "The Information Society in the Euro-Mediterranien context: Research and Information Technologies " (see Annex ) 1-2 April, in Sophia-Antipolis.
This workshop will be held in view of the preparation of the ministerial forum in Rome. Its objective is first of all to make the scientific community aware of the regional dimension of the Information Society. It will also lead to concrete proposals that could involve authorities as well as economic and social partners. The conclusion of the workshop will be transmitted to the ministerial forum in Rome.
The targeted groups are primarily research organizations and academia. Their task will then be to act as a catalyst in their environment and to attract to the projects that will be developed the indispensable partners for the succes of the initiative.