ERCIM News No.42 - July 2000 [contents]

Developing the European Research Area

by Gerard van Oortmerssen

The European Commission released a Communi-cation entitled ‘Towards a European Research Area’ with the aim to contribute to the creation of better overall framework conditions for research in Europe. As a pan-European network of centres of excellence in Information Technology and Applied Mathematics, representing over 7000 researchers, ERCIM is directly concerned by the future European Research Area. ERICM is very enthusiastic about the initiative of launching the debate and has supplied Commissioner Philippe Busquin with propositions and ideas.

The document adopted by the European Commission suggests a frontier-free area for research where scientific resources are used more to create jobs and increase Europe’s competitiveness. Special attention will be given to the networking of centres of excellence, and developing a European approach to large research infrastructures. This will be combined with measures to promote spin-offs from research. The problems of fragmentation and lack of collaboration between public and industrial research in Europe are to be addressed through better co-ordination and by encouraging the mobility of researchers. Philippe Busquin, EU Research Commissioner sees the Commission as a co-ordinator and analyst, as well as a body that could persuade the Member States to open up their national research programmes to non-nationals.

ERCIM is convinced that the document shows the right direction and is pleased to offer some comments on the communication in general, solicited by the Commissioner. We think that Europe should innovate not only in technological terms, but also on how to transfer know-how and know-why from research institutions into industry. We should look for innovative methods of ensuring that European industry acquires what it really needs to compete in the international arena. In particular, Europe must balance basic versus applied research. Both are absolutely necessary for the long-term success and prosperity of Europe. The balance is currently tilting heavily towards applied research, and this will be detrimental to the survival of the European industry in the long-term in the emerging global competition. In order to succeed in today’s fast evolving IT field with very short product cycles, basic and applied research as well as development work should be carried out parallel rather than as a long chain. This should not only enhance the role of basic research but also require closer contacts between industry and research communities.

The European Research Area is an opportunity that may bring about fresh new attitudes concerning scientists with a business sense. This may necessitate the establishment of new ‘rules of employment’ compatible and competitive with the ones in the USA. Particular emphasis should be placed on ensuring that the attitudes of industry are also changed: more high-risk investment is required from European industry. New incentives should not focus only on financial benefits, but also on other indirect benefits that support sustainability of growth and competitive advantage on the international level. Europe must also decide whether SMEs form the backbone of its infrastructure and act accordingly. The paradox in recent years has been that, despite the rhetoric, European SMEs are battling to survive, rather than striving for success on an international level. Absence of appropriate national policies in some EU countries on the one hand, and too much EC bureaucracy (eg, procedures that are just too heavy for SMEs in the 5th Framework Programme) on the other are creating a negative environment.

ERCIM’s Comments and Proposals for Future actions

Comments and proposals concern mainly the field of Information Technology (IT), but there are other themes involved through cross-linking. The following points are a selection of propositions in reply to Commissioner Busquin.

Networking of centres of excellence and creation of virtual centres: ERCIM has 10 years of experience in this area on the European level and has already established co-operation between centres of excellence. Therefore, networking of centres of excellence and the creation of virtual centres looks to us to be a prime area for ERCIM to act as the underpinning consortium leader. The value of the ERCIM concept is emphasised by its growing membership, organisational vitality and international standing. Most European nations are represented in ERCIM, and good contacts are maintained with non-members. Several suggestions made in the Commission’s document have already been realised by ERCIM. For instance, ERCIM is already co-operating on staff exchanges, is running a fellowship programme, with fellows from the whole world having rotating visits at selected ERCIM institutes. ERCIM is also highly involved in EU co-operation with non EU-countries. ERCIM is well aware of national and European research programmes, and hence is able to co-ordinate them as far as possible. ERCIM is active in technology transfer (eg, W3C Offices, senior management in W3C) and a significant number of spin-off companies are issued from ERCIM institutes.

Proposals: ERCIM is willing to apply the new ‘decentralisation’ policy concerning the management of EU actions in the IT area. ERCIM is ready to provide the necessary infrastructure in Europe to support virtual research centres. For this purpose, ERCIM would use its knowledge on new technologies (WWW, GRID technology, heterogeneous data sources, digital libraries, etc.)

Defining a European approach to research infrastructures: Virtual laboratories rely on real networks and require permanent funding. Electronic networks should be considered as a research infrastructure on the same footing as particle accelerators, high power lasers or ocean platforms.

Proposals: ERCIM could help defining life cycles for Centres of Excellence .

Better use of the potential offered by electronic networks:

Proposals: ERCIM would be the natural candidate to start experiments on the Very High Speed Transeuropean Network for electronic scientific communications.

More co-ordinated implementation of national and European research programmes: Evaluation of European organisations should include USA referees to ensure a good comparison and to get new visions and suggestions. Participating in programmes of other countries should not lead to more paper work for the researchers.

Closer relations between European organisations for scientific and technological co-operation: Better co-ordination and simpler organisation are very much needed in this domain. ERCIM is already a good model for scientific co-operation. In addition, ERCIM is already involved in the evaluation of projects for the World Bank.

Proposals: ERCIM could provide expertise to evaluate projects

Better use of instruments or indirect support of research: Appropriate technological infrastructure can contribute to the increase of private investment in R&D in Europe. An important part of such an infrastructure should be a European Digital Library containing all the information which could encourage and stimulate a private investment in research.

Proposals: ERCIM proposes to take the responsibility to develop this Digital Library.

• Support for start-up companies: The individual ERCIM members, within their limited boundaries, are very active in helping their researchers to create high tech companies. From ERCIM’s point of view it would be very desirable to ramp up this support and to bring it to a real European dimension. For example, by providing some matching European funds it could be possible to harmonise different conditions in various countries and to add more than just a European flavour to it: the mentioned qualification of European researchers could be done at a European level. Hence the process of being trained for commercial and entrepreneurial skills could be done throughout Europe. Researchers would be also trained in another country than their home country, thus also offering chances to find strategic partners and canvassing customers all over Europe. Especially in the field of ICT, there is a global rather than a regional market. It would therefore be very advantageous also for new high tech companies to have access to the bigger part of the European market right from the beginning.

Risk capital investment: It would be a good idea to foster a European fund, for which new high tech companies from all over Europe could apply to. This would create an international, European environment, which would offer good conditions for high tech start up companies all over Europe, and would be especially attractive to companies from countries where chance capital is not yet that abundant.

Giving the young a taste of research and careers in science: In several European countries, science is seen as an unattractive option. There needs to be a clearer commitment of both national governments and EU to scientific career management. European Science Weeks should be organised within European countries. Such weeks already exist on the national level in some European countries.

Proposals: ERCIM would be interested in organising European Science Weeks within European countries in the domain of IT.

Integration of the scientific communities of western and eastern Europe: With our partners from the Czech Republic (CRCIM), Hungary (SZTAKI) and Slovakia (SRCIM), ERCIM has proved to be an excellent platform to integrate scientific communities of western, central and eastern Europe. Research co-operation resulted in joint submissions of scientific projects (in particular within the fifth framework programme), the active participation in ERCIM activitities (working groups, fellowship programme, etc.)

Proposals: ERCIM could contribute to the integration of western and eastern Europe in IT.

Making Europe attractive to researchers from the rest of the world: The post-doctoral ERCIM Fellowship Programme has proved to be extremely successful in attracting researchers from all over the world and should serve as an example. This programme is open to third country participation. A help from the European Union allowing the post-doc positions in the Networks of the ‘Human Potential’ programme to be filled by nationals of third countries would improve the situation.

Proposals: The Marie-Curie scheme would be more effective if it were open to non-Europeans like in the ERCIM Fellowship Programme. Non-European participants should be allowed to submit applications in order to compete with the Fulbright Fellowships (covering any graduate studies). There should be a high degree of transparency in International Marie-Curie Fellowships. Only researchers coming to Europe would be eligible.

Development of a shared vision of the ethical issues of science and technologies

Proposals: ERCIM could contribute to the discussion on open software and internet policy.


‘Towards a European Research Area’, Communication from the Commission:

Please contact:
Jean-Eric Pin - ERCIM Office
Tel: + 33 4 92 38 50 10