Tánaiste calls for new science drive in Europe

17 Feb 2004

A new initiative to support basic scientific research should be developed within the European Union without delay, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Mary Harney TD, has urged.

Speaking last evening at a symposium in Dublin on ‘Europe’s Search for Excellence in Basic Research’ Harney (pictured) said the best way to improve the EU’s research and development performance, particularly vis a vis the US, was to generate competition among the best researchers, “supported by independent global peer review”.

“I believe in the powerful influence that EU-wide funding of scientific research can bring to bear, where our best research scientists are continually subject to international peer review and benchmarking. And we should pay particular attention to nurturing new research talent,” she said.

EU Research Ministers, scientists and industrialists are attending the two-day meeting as part of consultations and preparations for a new European strategy on basic research designed to close the gap with the US. The meeting, which is being chaired by the president of the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Edward Walsh, has been organised jointly by the Tánaiste’s Department and the European Commission.

Harney said global competition for technology and scientific talent was increasing and Europe was already lagging behind when it should be leading. “The question therefore arises as to whether there is a need for a specific EU initiative designed to stimulate the quality of basic research,” she said.

“I do not want to pre-empt the work of the symposium but I believe we should move swiftly and with determination to develop such an initiative. A clear focus on scientific research, which is the fuel that drives innovation and growth, and the prioritising of particular areas of research for targeted EU funding, is not incompatible with a flexible new mechanism to implement such an initiative with a minimum of red tape,” she said.

Harney added that the EU as a whole and member states at a national level needed to re-examine their procedures for commercialising research. Any fundamental review of EU R&D strategy must involve industry at an early stage, she said. European universities had much to learn from their US counterparts in this area, the most successful of which better understood that partnership with industry was imperative in terms of accessing private funding and expertise.

Harney welcomed the publication this week of a study by the UK-based Demos think-tank which found that the key element of global competition was no longer the trade of goods or services or flows of capital but the competition for people, particularly “creative workers” in the scientific, technological and engineering sectors.

Comparing the EU as a whole with the US in terms of investment in R&D, a clear gap had emerged and the gap was widening, the Tánaiste said. In 1995 the US public and private sectors combined were spending €15bn more than the EU, but by 2001 the gap had widened to €140bn, with 80pc of the gap due to lower business investment in the EU. In addition, there were an estimated 400,000 EU science and technology graduates currently in the US, some 90,000 of whom were working in the research area.

Last month the Tánaiste told the European Parliament that the capacity of the European Union to retain its science and technology graduates and attract non-EU scientists and researchers to work in Europe was a key issue for the future growth and competitiveness of EU industry. She called for a larger proportion of the EU budget to be devoted to research to kick-start investment and activity in the private sector, and for the rules and regulations dealing with access to research funds to be greatly simplified.

She added that the Irish Presidency would seek to bring some new thinking to bear on this issue over the coming months and that innovation would be the theme for a meeting of EU Ministers scheduled to take place in Shannon in April.

By Brian Skelly