Some 750 industrialists, researchers, engineers, and urban planners from across Europe gathered in Toulouse, France at the end of last month to debate the future of industrial research in Europe. The focus of the debate was the Fifth Framework Programme, which will determine the direction of European funding of research and technology development (RTD) between 1998 and 2002.
The Commission believes directing and encouraging research and development across European industry is vital to Europe’s economic future.
It estimates that inadequate research and innovation lost Europe about 20% of its industrial jobs between 1970 and 1980, while during the same period, employment rose 1.5% in the US and 4% in Japan.
Jean Pierson, president and chief executive officer of Airbus Industrie, holds the same view. Speaking in Toulouse he heaped praise on the Commission for recognising aerospace’s needs in its latest funding proposals. But he warned there were alarming parallels between his industry’s problems and those of European industry as a whole.
`Europe must face up to the might of the US… which outspends it in research and technology by a factor of four,’ said Pierson.
`Europe has world-class research and development facilities but they are scattered around. They work, in the main, more or less independently of each other with often insufficient funding.
`Europe is still composed of sovereign states with differing national priorities which therefore limit the pooling of knowledge, the sharing out of resources and focused research and technology efforts,’ he warned.
Returning to the challenge facing the aerospace sector, Pierson said: `During the coming years the primary focus of our efforts must be on evolutionary developments of existing airframes – like derivatives of the A330 and A340 – and on engines rather than new designs.’
There is one exception: the programme for a very large aircraft, the so-called A3XX. Pierson said this would require significant advances in technology, and hence the multi-billion research and development price tag attached to it.
On paper the Framework programmes promise to do just what Pierson says is needed. At their core is the desire to act as a catalyst, funding thousands of research projects and achieving things that national and private sector research can never achieve.
These include assembling top-class international research teams to address problems with a European dimension, or to attain world-class competitive positions.
However, this laudable objective is harder to put into practice, as the changes envisaged for the next framework programme clearly illustrate.
Edith Cresson, commissioner for science, research and development, is proposing a budget of Ecu16,000m (£10.8bn) for the Fifth Framework Programme – an increase of 3% on Framework Four which runs out at the end of next year.
The commissioner’s proposal is being examined by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and still has a number of hoops to negotiate before its adoption in spring next year.
Cresson said the aim of the Fifth Framework Programme is `to focus community research efforts better, and on clearer and better defined objectives’.
Framework Four had a more open-ended approach, she said. Nevertheless recent studies, said the Commission, show each Ecu invested in precompetitive research has generated an average return of Ecu4.
Lessons have clearly been learnt on how not to do it. The EU knows it must now concentrate research efforts on areas where European-level research can make a difference – hence the intention to slim down the bureaucratic mass.
Unlike Framework Four, which had no less than 15 separate themed programmes for research, the Fifth Framework has just three: life sciences and the environment; creating a user-friendly information society; and promoting competitiveness and sustainable growth in the manufacturing industry, transport and energy sectors.
Within each of these some generic technologies are defined where the EU needs to gain more knowledge, and a number of key actions identified – supporting research in such strategic fields as aeronautics, intelligent production and advanced energy systems.
These thematic areas are complemented by three horizontal programmes designed to promote international cooperation and innovation and get the best out of the European workforce. In other words, to ensure commercial exploitation of this research can take place.
This it believes can be done by coordinating the activities of the innovation units in each thematic programme, helping to connect research-based start-ups with sources of venture capital, and encouraging small and medium sized enterprises to participate.
`Fewer programmes, fewer interfaces between programmes, and increased built-in adaptability’ is the Commission’s aim under the Fifth Framework Programme. It also promises a `new management structure that will be lighter and more flexible than the current one’.
The need for European industry to pool its resources in order to survive is unquestionable.
Not only does Europe need to be able to compete with the US and Japan, but competition will increasingly come from other quarters, notably India, China, Indonesia and the CIS.
Well-targeted European funds would certainly give industry a boost in its efforts to compete.