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R&D Can Secure Europe's Future

In the future, Europe will not play a significant role in the world if it is not a powerhouse for scientific and technological advances

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“In the future, Europe will not play a significant role in the world if it is not a powerhouse for scientific and technological advances,” Andreu Mas-Colell told Science|Business as he took over as the new head of the European Research Council (ERC).

The difficult task facing the ERC as a European funding body is to ensure that the current economic crisis does not have a negative impact on the long-term future of its programs. It is the role of the ERC to help European science be, “cutting edge and second to none,” believes Mas-Colell, adding that it can provide, “a substantial stimulus to the vibrancy” of the European Research Area in basic research and, “make an enormous difference” to attracting and retaining scientific talent.

One of the main issues for the ERC during Mas-Colell’s two and a half year term at its helm will be the, “need to keep an eye on the preparatory steps for the 8th Framework Program.”

Mas-Colell reiterated these thoughts yesterday at his first public engagement as secretary-general of the ERC, when he spoke to the research policy conference “New Worlds – New Solutions” at Lund University, Sweden. The conference took the first steps in planning Framework Program 8 – due to run from 2014 to 2019 – by setting out the Lund Declaration, a statement of the principles under which FP8 will be run.

At the heart of the Lund Declaration is a call to switch the focus of Europe’s R&D programs from narrow themes, to dealing with cross-disciplinary Grand Challenges including poverty, climate change, energy, and dwindling natural resources. Mas-Colell told delegates at the conference that these Grand Challenges all require, “Concerted contributions from all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences.”

He noted that along with being ‘Grand’, these challenges are also global, saying Europe has to relate to the rest of the world. “We must change the style of our relationship with the rest of the world in research and development: there should be more humility in our relationships with Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

Within Europe too, there is a need for cooperation. “We have a strong system with lots of assets and strengths, but it is also a fragmented system,” said Mas-Colell. For example, there are 29 nanotechnology research programs in progress across the continent. “Is [this] financially sustainable?” asked Mas-Colell.

Maintaining R&D budgets was also on the mind of the Swedish minister for higher education and research, Tobias Krantz, who used the Lund conference, organized as part of the Swedish Presidency, to call on the EU to improve the efficiency of how it finances research and development. The EU could get more value for the money it spends on R&D, Krantz told delegates. The research community in Lund, and elsewhere in Sweden, is still glowing from the news that the city is to host the European Spallation Source, set to be the world’s most advanced centre for materials research. But, “it’s taken way too long to get here,” Krantz said. “We need better decision-making skills when it comes to large investments.”

He also emphasized that Europe must not lag behind other countries in realizing the importance of investing in research, pointing to the large increase in funding for research included in President Barack Obama’s US recovery plan. “It would be devastating if the countries of Europe cut down on funding for research and development to save money at a time of crisis,” the Swedish Presidency said, summing up a key message from the Lund conference.

Source: Science|Business