Poto?nik: EU-US comparisons on R&D spending ‘not always helpful’

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With 95% of public research carried out at member state level, comparisons with the United States and Japan do not reflect Europe’s true R&D capacity, EU Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik told EURACTIV Turkey in an interview.

 Janez Poto?nik is the EU’s science and research commissioner.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

If we think about the agenda and goals of the Lisbon Strategy, how is Europe currently positioned vis-à-vis the United States and Japan? 

There are some areas in which we are doing well and some areas where more needs to be done. For example, we seem to have quite a way to go before we will be investing the percentage of our wealth in R&D at the kind of levels we see in the US and Japan. 

But comparisons, while useful, are not always helpful. Remember, we are 27 countries, with different languages, different scientific cultures and very different starting points. The bulk of our public research funding – about 95% – is spent at member-state level. The US and Japan are single states, with a much more homogenous scientific level across them, and much more centralised funding for science. 

In the year 2006, no European won the Nobel prize, whereas in 2007 half of the winners were European. How do you see the future of
 European success?
 

I think that 2007 was a very good year for Europe in Nobel terms! Europeans won the chemistry, physics and literature prizes and were involved in the medicine and peace prizes. And don’t forget that there are a very great number of European scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change, which shared the peace prize. 

We do have many excellent scientists working here, and I’m glad that the Nobel committees recognised that in 2007. I can only hope the same will be true in 2008 and beyond! Maybe the work we are doing with the best of Europe’s scientists, through the creation of the European Research Council, will lead to some more European Nobel laureates in the future. 

How do you see Turkey’s entrance to the EU from a research perspective?    

For myself, I can say that it was a very clear priority for me to have Turkey as an associated country within the Research Framework Programme. I know from the experience of my own country, Slovenia, that getting involved in such programmes as early as possible, making contacts, understanding how the administration works and creating links with EU member states – this is an invaluable part of the preparation for accession to the EU. 

In the year 2006, the chapter ‘Science and Research’ of the Turkish accession negotiations was opened and completed. However, it was noted that if need be ‘it can be discussed again later’. Do you think you will need to discuss the chapter again? What do you think about the progress being made by Turkey in science and research? 

It is a standard approach to international negotiations that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This was the case when Slovenia and other countries negotiated their accession prior to 2004. I think whether the chapter needs to be reopened depends as much on how science policy progresses in the EU than on what happens in Turkey. 

Obviously the main thing is to keep the channels of communication open, so you know what we’re doing and we know what you’re doing. That’s true of the whole process, not just the science side. But as I said, I’m very glad that Turkey is a part of FP7: as an associated member it is to all intents and purposes on an equal footing with the member states. That’s an important step for you. 

Are there currently any common EU-Turkey science and research projects going on? Can you give any examples of those? 

I don’t have a full list of the projects that Turkey is involved in as an associated country in FP7, but what I can say in general is that I was very encouraged to see that Turkey is involved in successful projects in all the different parts of the programme. This shows that very real scientific co-operation is being built up, in many scientific disciplines. 

It’s particularly good to see that Turkey is involved in a number of the projects in our ‘People’ programme. As I have already said, so much of our future co-operation depends on creating good personal relationships, and staff exchanges and research fellowships are a major part of that.

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