Wanted: A Unified European Research Policy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.12.2002
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Wanted: A Unified European Research Policy

Europe is anxious to catch up with the U.S. in the field of science. At the Union's biggest research conference ever the EU is launching a 17.5 billion euro program to coordinate R & D among the 15 member states.


More money for cross-border scientific collaboration: formula for success?

Some 8000 scientists, government officials and business leaders are meeting in Brussels from November 11 – 13 for the largest research conference ever held under EU auspices. There they will be able to share ideas and information as part of the European Union's Research Framework Program.

The European Commission aims to change the fact that the EU lags behind the U.S. when it comes to scientific research and development by pumping 17.5 billion euros into cultivating a truly European research environment over the next four years. The Research Framework Program will focus on financing projects in the fields of space and aeronautics, biotechnology, genomics and food safety.

Poor cooperation

Up until now though, inter-European cooperation has been the exception rather than the rule. The problems are numerous.

Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute told DW-TV of specific problems in the field of stem cell research.

"In different countries we have different regulations," he said. "The research that is done in the lab of one country cannot be conducted in a similar way in another country."

Stem cell research relies on cell clusters removed from human embryos when they are between four and six days old. In Sweden the embryos are created expressly for research purposes. The country's scientists use the cells in their search for cures for serious illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Swedish scientists also export many of the stem cell lines - though not to Germany.

After a lengthy debate earlier this year the German parliament decided to prohibit the import of stem cells. So German stem cell researchers, like Bonn-based Oliver Brüstle, can only use imported cells extracted before January 1, 2002. Brüstle is still waiting for the central ethics commission to approve his application, first submitted in 1999, to be able to work with the imported cells.

Hans Jörg Bullinger believes that the solution is a unified European research policy: "As we have it on the political side, we also need it on the research side."

Too little money

European investment in research and development also lags behind U.S. spending. At the Brussels conference, EU Science Commissioner Philippe Busquin pointed out that European spending on scientific research makes up a mere 1.9 percent of the EU's GDP. As opposed to that, the Americans devote 2.7 percent of GDP towards research and development while Japan tops the list with 3 percent of its GDP spent on research projects. Determined not to lag behind, in March this year the European Commission pledged to raise its investment to 3 percent by 2010.

The discrepancy can be overcome according to Professor Bullinger: "If you look at the amount that is invested in the U.S., it is much more than we can do in a single country in Europe. But if we have a unified European research strategy, we have a good opportunity that in certain segments we will come to a similar research position as we see in the United States.

Not all bad

In other fields though, European scientists have developed successful collaborative research projects. Funded by the European Union, "Siberia II" aims to provide precise data on greenhouse gases and their interactions with climate change. The knowledge scientists are gaining by analyzing the northern zone of Siberia could make climate predictions more reliable in the future.

The project's coordinator, Christiane Schmullius from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, explains: "We work with 14 partner institutions, and each one specializing in a certain area. For instance, one institute in Vienna looks at ground moisture dynamics, one in France deals with maps of biomass, and another analyses snow parameters. Those are all problems unto themselves, and no institute could handle them all itself."

Europe may have a long way to go before it can keep pace with the U.S. in the field of science, but if the conference in Brussels is anything to go by, it seems determined to make a step in that direction.

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