Busquin’s bold vision to make Europe compete with the best

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Series Details Vol 7, No.12, 22.3.01, p10
Publication Date 22/03/2001
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Date: 22/03/01

By Peter Chapman

PHILIPPE Busquin wants Europe to think big when it comes to innovation and technology.

The Commissioner's long-awaited vision for a €17.5 billion research-and-development plan focuses like a laser beam on one very ambitious goal: to help the Union catch up with its dynamic rivals in the US and Asia and plug the brain drain that is robbing the continent of its finest scientific talent.

Coupled with similarly high-minded goals in the high-tech arena, including the controversial (and, some might say, pie-in-the-sky) Galileo satellite programme and efforts to bring more Europeans online, the research initiative represents a major EU push to become the global innovation leader.

But there will be more than just the usual political and budgetary obstacles to achieving this. The Union must also address a shortage of technologically-savvy workers to fill the thousands of new information society jobs being created. Closing this 'skills gap' is another major priority being discussed this weekend at the Stockholm summit.

Busquin's blueprint for the 'sixth framework' R&D programme, covering 2002 to 2006, aims to boost innovation by giving priority to fewer, bigger projects worth millions of euro. These would cover everything from biotechnology to nano-technology - the science of tiny objects with potential applications from medicine to computing.

The Belgian R&D chief claims EU funding - currently €15 billion under the soon-to-end fifth framework programme - is spread far too thinly on a raft of small-scale projects. By re-targeting the new, bigger budget - up 17% on the current programme - Busquin hopes to put an end to the old hotchpotch approach to R&D, which he claims has cost Europe dearly in its battle to keep pace with the US, Chinese, Indian and Japanese pacesetters.

"Europe has set out to become the most successful and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world," Busquin said when he unveiled the programme late last month. "Research and innovation are the keys to success in achieving its goal."

The Commissioner also wants the EU to create a "European Research Area", to promote cooperation among national governments' R&D plans to avoid costly duplication of work.

Although Busquin grabs most of the attention under the R&D microscope, other Commissioners - notably telecoms chief Erkki Liikanen and transport and energy supremo Loyola de Palacio - are responsible for specific projects in their areas. Liikanen will win the biggest single piece of the budget cake - €3.6 billion - for the IT and telecoms sector.

Priority will be given to building on the EU's current lead in mobile communications, even though third generation '3G' services (offering Internet access via wireless technology) has yet to take off.

New research is also expected to target efforts to bring mobile technology to a host of applications beyond the simple telephone handset.

Projects aimed at using new technology to help the elderly and disabled become part of the 'information society' - such as devices that would make it easier for blind people to surf the Internet - will also be the vogue.

Member states and the European Parliament were quick to give the thumbs-up to the broad details of Busquin's plan, but debate is certain to intensify as the proposals are fleshed out.

Parliament's industry committee said it would fight off any efforts to trim the budget. "We must try to keep it," said French socialist rapporteur Girard Caudron, adding. "This amount is necessary and reasonable."

He added that the US had just announced plans to increase its research budget by 9%.

Commissioner Philippe Busquin wants Europe to think big when it comes to innovation and technology.

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