EU Plans Europewide Research Area

The European Commission yesterday revealed plans for a single "European Research Area" designed to optimize the European Union's collective capabilities and to close the research gap with the U.S. and Japan.

"This means the creation of a frontier-free area for research where scientific resources are used to create more jobs," Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said at a press conference transmitted from Strasbourg to Brussels following the Commission's decision.

The strategy, contained in a 50-page Communication, "Towards a European Research Area," sets out the elements that would comprise an efficient and competitive European research policy. Many of the initiatives are old friends that the Commission has dusted off, such as plans for a single pan-European patent or the need to encourage risk capital investment.

If approved by the 15 European Union countries, however, the strategy would also lead to the creation of a network of "world-class centers of excellence."

These centers already exist, but they generally fail to share their knowledge outside their national borders.

"There is not yet a real research policy in Europe and research hardly ever leaves its national shell," Busquin said.

The Commission's initiative is prompted by evidence that the research gap between the EU and its major competitors is growing.

The report points out that the average research effort made in each of the 15 EU member states totals 1.8 percent of Europe's Gross Domestic Product. In contrast the effort stands at 2.8 percent in the U.S. and 2.9 percent in Japan, according to the Communication. If overlapping national programs are taken into consideration, the contrast provides even a bleaker picture.

As a result of this situation, the EU has registered annual trade deficits in high tech products over the last ten years, "and this deficit seems to be increasing," according to the report.

To correct this situation, the Commission has proposed a series of initiatives, none of which entail new funding.

Central to the development of the network of "centers of excellence" for example, the document calls for the development a special broadband high-speed electronic network linking the centers. The document points out that the U.S. already has such research-dedicated networks, some of which transmit "in the order of magnitude of Gbits/s." It adds that two recent initiatives in the U.S., the Internet-2 and Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiatives, will increase this capacity.

As a result the Commission recalls that it is supporting an interconnection project involving national networks designed to move each of the EU countries to increasingly larger capacity levels, from 155M-bps now to 622M-bps, where the ultimate objective is to move to a gigabit capacity.

Although the Communication identifies the promotion of risk capital as a priority, it is vague about how to achieve this objective. The one concrete measure it identifies represents only a first step and involves the establishment of an inventory by March of existing venture capital promotion instruments.

For the Commission the availability of a single patent valid throughout the EU at affordable cost is essential to protecting research developments. The Commission is therefore working on a draft regulation. Currently, by way of a so-called European Patent Convention, European inventors can make one application, but end up with individual national patents which vary in content.

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