R and D plan top priority, says de Donnea

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p19
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By Peter Chapman

THE Union's battle plan for beating the US and Japan in the research and development stakes must be primed and ready for launch during the Belgian presidency, insists Brussels-region premier Francois Xavier de Donnea.

The Liberal, who chairs the two research ministers' meetings during Belgium's six-month stint at the Union helm, says the number-one priority is to finalise plans for the proposed €17.5-billion 'sixth frame-work programme' expected to run from 2002 to 2006.

But he admits failure to reach a common position this year could lead to a gap between the end of the current micro-managed fifth framework and the radical 'think-big' approach proposed by his compatriot, R&D Commissioner Philippe Busquin.

De Donnea says he is already eyeing potential deal-breakers. These could set back hopes that the proposals will be finally rubber-stamped by June 2002 - once the European Parliament has given its go-ahead.

The budget for the programme is already causing concern.He says a majority of member states, including Belgium, backed the plan envisaged by Busquin. But he says the 'tight-fisted' Dutch and their Scandinavian allies could stoke trouble with calls for a lower budget that would only raise the current €14.85-billion budget to €16.5 billion - in line with inflation.

De Donnea says there is broad consensus in favour of Busquin's plans to create a European Research Area that would boost cooperation between member states to eradicate wasteful overlaps in national R&D.

There is also agreement on the seven scientific priorities on which the bulk of the budget will be spent: genomics and biotechnology for health; information society technologies; nanotechnologies; aeronautics and space; food safety and health; sustainable development and global change; and citizens and governance in Europe's knowledge-based society.

But he says some member states are "worried" about the way the Commission wants to be free to dip into the €180-million slush fund for unforeseen research priorities such as mad-cow disease. "Some people would like to get greater precision from the Commission about that," says de Donnea.

Another worry is that small companies and research institutes may be left out from the envisaged switchover to big strategic projects. De Donnea favours a smooth transition so that small-scale projects in the current programme are not just dumped when the next round of funding gets under way.

On nuclear research, de Donnea predicts a bumpy ride in the debate over the €700 million earmarked for studies into nuclear fusion, in collaboration with Russia, the US, Japan and Canada.

Critics say the technology - which relies on the joining together of nuclear particles rather than splitting them to form huge amounts of energy - is pie in the sky that will never come to fruition. Supporters of nuclear fusion say it could one day solve the world's energy problems, but still be environmentally friendly because it would rely mainly on harmless sea-water instead of harmful radioactive elements. "Some would like to see the budget smaller, some higher. But Belgium says it's a very important programme. Fifty years from now it might be the technology when oil is depleted," says de Donnea.

Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001.

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