Importance of research is forgotten

The draft of the European constitution merely pays lip service to a hugely significant factor for the long-term prosperity of the Union – research and development.

In all the political fallout from Tony Blair’s surprise decision to announce a referendum on the proposed new European constitution, one area has scarcely been mentioned.

Research – or rather the lack of it – in the EU remains a serious problem. It’s one that will prove the economic downfall of European countries if they fail to address it urgently. The draft constitution does at least attempt to address the issue of R&D, but says relatively little beyond vague instructions to promote it and encourage co-operation among member nations.

However it does contain a few strictures that could prove awkward for those setting European research policies in the future. The document demands that bureaucrats fix in advance the amount of EU public money to be spent on a given research programme, and that this figure must not be exceeded. As the programmes will be fixed’multi-annually’, this could prove a financial straitjacket for big projects.

This has received next-to-no attention in all the wranglings over what the constitution means in terms of national sovereignty, political decision-making and Europe’s future economic success. Maybe it should. As the EU’s own calculations suggest, the bloc falls far behind the US and Japan in research. In 2000 European expenditure on research amounted to e164m (£108m) accounting for 1.93 per cent of GDP. By 2001, this had scarcely risen – to only e171m.

By contrast, the US spent the equivalent of e287m in 2001, or about 2.8 per cent of GDP, while Japan spent the equivalent of e154m, or roughly 3 per cent of its GDP. The EU’s stated aim of getting to 3 per cent of GDP by 2010 still seems a very long way off indeed.

The number of people involved in research in each place also tells a striking story. The number of researchers per 1,000 active population stands at only about 5.36 in Europe. In the US, there are 8.66 researchers per 1,000 active population, while in Japan there are 9.72.

The situation appears to be worsening, as the trend for European scientists to be poached by the US continues: as many as 400,000 European researchers and engineers are now working in north America, according to a European Commission report.

A new constitution could be an opportunity to regain focus on what’s really important – the serious, long-term decline of the EU as a modern, science-based economy. But the signs so far suggest this opportunity, like so many others, will be lost.

The most striking aspect of European research policy to date is how little effect it seems to be having, despite the posturing and grandiose statements. Indeed, perhaps the most serious effect that the proposed new constitution will have on research and development within the European Union will be to distract much-needed attention away from this most important area.

While politicians and bureaucrats are arguing the finer points of voting rights and monetary policy, the economic lifeblood of the modern European economy may ultimately be draining away.

In fact, some of the unintended consequences could be unfortunate: one of the key aims of a new constitution is to harmonise defence activities across the EU. This will necessarily involve sharing defence technology among European nations. Yet this could be problematic, particularly for UK companies looking to join with US companies on defence technology.

Given the touchiness of the US over all aspects of defence, it seems unlikely that a European defence policy will assist UK companies seeking to cement R&D or technology sharing relationships with their US counterparts. Deals and takeovers of US companies by UK firms will come under much closer scrutiny by the US government, and UK companies will probably find it harder than ever to gain contracts in the states – the US government already strongly favours homegrown specialists.

This risks further polarising the defence research communities on either side of the Atlantic. BAE Systems, for example, has been seeking merger opportunities in the US while retaining interests in Europe. It could find this more difficult if a climate of suspicion develops in the US over the setting up of a European defence entity separate from Nato.

These effects can also ripple out beyond the companies that deal purely in defence contracts, as more technology falls within the broadening ‘defence’ remit. Plus, the culture of US government agencies to reject UK companies in favour of US technology in defence could easily spread to become a wider tendency to ignore UK products across the board in government procurement.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.

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