Interview: ‘Open access key condition for EU research infrastructures’

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Any country is free to join the European research infrastructure projects and any scientist can access them, once they are operational. The perfect incentive for “foreign brains” to come to Europe, says John Wood in an interview with euractiv.com.

John Wood is the chairman of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), launched in 2002 to develop a coherent approach to policymaking on research infrastructures in Europe and, in parallel, to conduct negotiations between the EU member states on concrete initiatives for such structures at European level.  

In this interview, John Wood explains what these structures really are, how the 35 projects identified by ESFRI can be built up and gives some examples of research infrastructures’ concrete benefits for people. He underlines the fact that all projects are of open access to any country and that all scientists – not only those of the financially contributing countries – can access the infrastructures.  

What is a European research infrastructure, compared with a national one?

It is a big physical item that costs so much money that it is beyond the reach of one individual member state. In physical sciences and engineering, for example, it is about really big pieces of facilities or equipments that no member state can really afford alone.

European research infrastructure is something that you only need one of and then scientists from all over Europe can come and use it. The biggest added value comes from super networks, such as the existing Géant network. 

ESFRI has identified 35 projects for European scale research infrastructures. One of them is Aurora Borealis, a research icebreaker vessel, the construction of which is already recommended by the German Science Council, and which, with the support of other EU member states, could become the most modern and innovative research vessel in the world, greatly boosting polar and marine research. How will this project work in practice? 

This specific project is Germany-based and Germany is now inviting the Commission and other member states to take part in it. Enough member states have already declared their interest, so it may well become a truly trans-European project. 

I think that I’m speaking on behalf of the member states when I say that the Commission should not decide on what should be built. The Commission can support the underlying analysis and the design of projects but the actual building and the decision has to be taken by the member states as they are going to put the most of the money in. 

A lot of money, some €14 billion, would be needed to build all 35 research facilities. It is clear that not everything can be done at once and that not all member states will want to support each project. Can we think of formation of groups of countries that will want to take part in one project while others will support others? 

It is clear that not all member states can support everything, and they are not even expected to do so. If you take an example – Austria will perhaps be interested in only one, UK in eleven and France in sixteen projects. It will vary a lot. But if there is only one member state that wants to build some research facility and there are no other supporters, then the project probably dies. 

Will participants in one project need to contribute with the same amount of money? 

No. That’s impossible – and anyhow, some of these projects are already going on. 

Who can participate in these projects and, once built, use the infrastructures? 

All projects will have open access to everybody, even if not all member states will financially contribute to all of them. Any non-EU country can also ask whether they can join and they are quite free to do so. China, Russia, India and the United States are already part of some projects. The European research infrastructures will, no matter who pays for them, be open access for the whole world. So, if the Chinese want to use one of them, they can. They just need to contribute to the costs of their researchers that are coming.

Open access is one of the key conditions defining a European research infrastructure. Already currently, any foreign researcher can access nearly any national or European research infrastructure and vice-versa. International exchanges are crucial in science and research. 

European research infrastructures based on open access can thus become major catalyst for European brain gain? 

Absolutely. Already now 60% of the new staff coming to the research facilities I work with in the UK come from outside the UK – from China, India, Eastern Europe etc. If you know how research is done, you know that it is truly international. People want to work with the best people in their field and in order to do so – they move around. 

One problem that the United States has at the moment is this visa system that prevents foreign scientists from coming in. And that is why Europe is so popular. 

Can you give some concrete examples of how citizens benefit from these infrastructures? 

First, the digital camera is a spin-off from the technology that was developed in large telescopes, and thus stems from astronomy infrastructures. Second, a surgeon, to operate on eyes, uses the same simulation tools as astronomers. Today, 50% of the spin-offs in optics, for example, come from astronomy. 

The biggest laser system infrastructure ever, currently being built by the US in California (192 lasers focusing on one point) could potentially be an alternative way to provide nuclear fusion energy and would solve the world’s energy problems. Finally, an anti-terrorism device detecting explosives and guns at 100 metres under clothing has been developed using space technology.

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