We must think big to overtake US in technology race

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Series Details Vol 7, No.18, 3.5.01, p15
Publication Date 03/05/2001
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Date: 03/05/01

By Peter Chapman

It's not all white lab coats, tweed jackets and beards over at DG Research, home to Philippe Busquin - the distinctly low-key Belgian Commissioner who replaced the disgraced Edith Cresson in 1999.

It's partly true, of course. Scientists are Busquin's main confidantes. But today, science is big business.

And while his counterparts Mario Monti, Frits Bolkestein and Erkki Liikanen grab most of the headlines for their dealings with the corporate community, Busquin also quietly plays host to some of the continent's sharpest business minds.

The steady trickle of CEOs, chairmen, presidents and vice-presidents who pass through the doors almost unnoticed is testimony to the importance they attach to the ideas taking shape at Busquin's headquarters in Brussels' Square de Meeƻs.

As I arrive, almost on cue a suitably imposing figure leaves his office and shakes his hand.

"That was GlaxoSmithKline boss Jean Stephenne," says Busquin. The Rixensart-based MD was there to discuss a global project to boost HIV research and field testing of new drugs.

What is attracting industry's movers and shakers to the commissioner's office? Unlike his counterparts, he is not dreaming up new rules and regulations or blocking their mergers.

The answer, says Busquin, is simple.

It is a chance for them to take part in EU-level R&D and to help shape the priorities for a bold new blueprint designed to put Europe back on the world map for research and innovation.

The world was given a taste of things to come in February when Busquin unveiled the blueprint for his exciting sixth framework R&D programme.

He is now preparing to unveil more details of the programme at a 26 June meeting of research ministers.

If rubber-stamped by MEPs and governments next year, Busquin will be in charge of spending 17.5 billion euro of EU taxpayers' money from 2003-2006.

These are not huge sums by today's corporate standards.

But when linked to Busquin's other, arguably more important, vision - a European research area to coordinate fragmented national R&D programmes so there is no longer huge duplication of funding and work - the chances of success look promising.

Europe, he claims, could soon be in a "virtuous circle" of profits, jobs, wealth creation and growth and an end to the brain drain of top talent to the US.

The best European firms already know they need to be smarter to survive and prosper at the top, says the Commission science chief. That means a continuous cycle of research and development of ideas and innovation to put them into practice.

An effective EU policy, the company bosses know, can kick start this process.

"I was speaking to a vice president of Siemens last week," says Busquin. "He explained that 75% of products that they sell today are less than five years old. So we see the rhythm of innovation.

"It is important to organise that at European level. We are the richest internal market in the world. We must play in that market. To do that we must innovate and research new products."

A linchpin of the sixth framework for EU business will be the much vaunted 'think-big' approach to strategic projects in a handful of key areas such as nano-technology, genomics, biotechnology, aeronautics and space.

Although chosen for their huge economic and social potential, Europe currently lags behind in many of these critical areas.

Least known beyond academic circles is nano-technology - a way to make tiny particles perform huge new applications such as the delivery of an anti-cancer drug to specific cells in the body, or the coating of a window with a layer of plastics a couple of atoms thick to make it self-cleaning.

Meanwhile, genomic research is needed "to find a new paradigms" in health treatment diagnostics and the agricultural and environmental sectors. The US has to be budged from its leadership role in this field, he says.

"Europe must be leader in the world of new technology," says Busquin, who has a chart of the US-discovered human genome mapped on his wall. "If we are not at the top of progress then we will regress. It is clear. We must always have the ambition to be the best."

Thinking big, he claims, is the only way Europe can overtake the Americans and Japanese, whose research policies are not hampered by the EU's fragmented political set-up.

"Its strategical. When we work together in Europe we can be the best. Just look at Airbus. It's a success because European industry keeps together."

There will still be a place for small-scale efforts with a small number of partners.

But the new 'integrated projects', bringing together many partner companies and institutes from across the Union, will focus European work on a specific goal in three years, closer to the market place than traditional R&D. They will enjoy funding measured in tens of million euro rather than hundreds of thousands.

Further upstream, there will be a new system of 'networks of excellence' designed to bring together the best researchers in Europe to tackle the thorniest problems - but without the same expectation of final results.

"This will be more fundamental research which is long term and more risky to build critical mass at European level."

Hand-in-hand with this vision will be concrete administrative reforms.

Out will go the old micro-management of projects by Brussels. In will come a new business-like approach where results are more important than bureaucracy, although the R&D chief insists there will still be checks to ensure money is not misspent.

"At the moment we have 20,000 projects with 100,000 participants - even I cannot remember them all. That is too much. We want to give more responsibility to the coordinators of each project."

Steps will also be taken to ensure it is not just the big guns of European industry, like GlaxoSmithKline or Siemens, that can benefit.

The small and medium-sized companies expected to be the engine room of European growth in the 21st century are also on board.

To ensure they take part, SMEs will be promised 15% of the funding - up from 10% for the current fifth framework, which grinds to a halt next year.

With such a hit list of technology targets it is irresistible to ask what results the programme will actually yield.

But those looking for a glimpse of tomorrow's world will be disappointed. "We are unable to imagine. Life will be more changed than we think," he says.

Instead Busquin hopes success will make member states start to rethink their attitude to R&D in time for the next framework programme, which he hopes he will be around to launch.

"At the end of the framework I want to see Europe continuing to make innovation a real priority."

But what he really wants is for the European governments to pledge to match the US dollar for dollar, euro for euro. "Global expenditures must be compared. The EU as a whole gives 1.9% of its GDP. The US gives 2.7%."

Interview with Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.

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