By Strengthening S&T Ties, Europe and U.S. Seek New Ways to Address Grand Challenges

While scientists from the United States and Europe have collaborated on research projects for decades, there is a new push to strengthen trans-Atlantic ties, including boosting American participation in a key European Union research program.

There are U.S. participants in about 260 of the 7000 projects funded so far under the seven-year program according to figures presented at a 13 May session of the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Called the 7th EU Framework Program for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration, or FP7, it is the European Union’s main instrument for funding research and development activities covering all scientific disciplines. The program runs from 2007 to 2013 and will distribute 50 billion Euros or about $61.8 billion. The 7,000 approved projects were selected from 43,000 submissions, a 16 % success rate.

Alex Dehgan, Mary Minch, Maria Cristina Pedicchio, and Tom Wang

Alex Dehgan, Mary Minch, Maria Cristina Pedicchio, and Tom Wang

The Forum session, a look at mechanisms for international research cooperation from a trans-Atlantic perspective, was organized by the leaders of two complementary projects aimed at bringing scientists here and in Europe together to tackle important questions in fields such as health, agriculture, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.

 

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Sabine Herlitschka [Photo © Sabine Herlitschka]

There is “still a lot of work to do to improve trans-Atlantic joint activities and tackle the grand challenges that are out there,” said Sabine Herlitschka, director of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency’s division of European and international programs. She coordinates the project called BILAT-USA, aimed at strengthening the trans-Atlantic dialogue and increasing American participation in the European FP7 research program through a range of activities. A flip-side effort, Link2US, is coordinated by Tom Wang of the AAAS International Office and seeks to raise awareness among European scientists about cooperative research opportunities in the United States.

 

According to Wang, the Link2US program is less about match-making between individual researchers and more about creating venues—such as a recently launched electronic portal—where European scientists can quickly learn about funding opportunities by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. The program recently completed an analysis of 16 existing S&T agreements between Europe and the United States and will produce an analysis by the end of the year on barriers to trans-Atlantic research cooperation.

The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy has, for the past 35 years, been the premier venue for S&T policy discussions. Held 13-14 May in Washington, D.C., the Forum this year attracted over 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business to hear top policy experts talk on range of critical U.S. and international issues.

At the discussion organized by Herlitschka and Wang, specialists explored the existing climate for trans-Atlantic cooperative research and new approaches to tackle global challenges, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Mary Minch, director of international cooperation at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research, noted that mobility of researchers has become a fact of life. Where once a nation might worry about a brain-drain of its young scientists to greener pastures, now the model is what she called “brain circulation,” with researchers moving to take advantage of the best research opportunities wherever they appear.

“So we have particular programs,” she said, that “help researchers to come to Europe” and Europeans to undertake research activities abroad. “We find that very, very important,’’ she said.

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Maria Cristina Pedicchio

Maria Cristina Pedicchio, a mathematician at the University of Trieste in Italy and a member of the EU’s Strategic Forum for International Scientific and Technological Cooperation, said Europe as a whole still lags the United States in the percentage of GDP invested in research and development (1.85% versus 2.68 % in 2007) and must do more to promote public-private partnerships. A recent conference in Slovenia on the state of European R&D recommended a five-fold increase in the amount of money governments invest in research at private companies, Pedicchio said. She, too, stressed the importance of “mobility of knowledge, of capital, of ideas, of people” for international scientific cooperation.

Why do scientists decide to pursue cooperative ventures? Caroline Wagner, the chief executive officer of Science-Metrix Corporation, said there are some obvious reasons: access to knowledge, production of research papers, access to research resources and equipment. And while the Internet can foster contacts, she said, “90% of all cooperation in science begins face-to-face… If we want to encourage cooperation and collaboration, we have to meet, and we have to start to work together.”

There are more incentives than ever to do that. Over the past 30 years, Wagner said, more than a dozen nations, including Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have increased the quality of their scientific research relative to the United States. “The quality of science has started to converge,” she said, with a rise in collaboration across all fields of science and across national boundaries.

Alex Dehgan, science and technology adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said there also are compelling political reasons to pursue global science partnerships. Scientists often play important roles as leaders in many developing countries, he said. And science promotes important inherent values such as honesty, respect for evidence, openness, and respect for opposing points of view.

Although relations may be rocky with states such as Iran, he said, science can offer a framework that “cracks open that door” to better understanding. It is a myth that “scientific engagement works well only when you are friends,” Dehgan said. “In fact it works probably best in some of our mostly challenging relationships.” Noting that 60 % of the members of Iran’s last cabinet were scientists, Dehgan said it makes good sense to pursue science diplomacy with Iran.

One way to truly tap the science potential of developing nations, Wagner argued, is to get donors, governments and industry together to create “an open fund, a shared pot of money that isn’t tied to national prestige.” She said there already are some promising steps in that direction, and cited the work of the Global Knowledge Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks to be a matchmaker between research institutions in developed and developing countries. The Initiative claims that, because of its independent status, it can be a broker that is “not subject to governmental, corporate and institutional agendas.”

Line Matthiessen

Line Matthiessen

Some trans-Atlantic cooperative efforts already are well-established. Line Matthiessen, the European Commission’s executive secretary for the E.C.-U.S. Task Force on Biotechnology Research, described the task force as a thriving example. The task force, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, operates as a sort of policy “think tank” that brings together representatives of U.S. and European agencies to compare notes on the future direction of biotechnology R&D. Matthiessen said the task force also has trained more than 100 scientists in environmental biotechnology.

Phyllis Yoshida deputy assistant secretary for Asia, Europe and the Americas at the U.S. Department of Energy, spoke of another, more recent venture in trans-Atlantic science cooperation. The E.U.-U.S. Energy Council, launched in November 2009, is giving a higher profile to cooperative research on energy issues, Yoshida said, with working groups on energy security, policy, and technology. She is U.S. chair for the policy working group, which has been developing road maps for cooperation on energy efficiency standards and labeling, measures to support “smart” power grids and electric vehicles, nuclear safety regulations, and strategies for the public acceptance of carbon capture and storage.

Yoshida said the work of the Energy Council has led to exchanges of researchers, parallel calls for proposals on important research topics on both sides of the Atlantic, joint peer reviews, and other activities.

“We do feel that for the first time in a long time, it’s not just talking to each other, but we’re actually going to be doing some joint work,” Yoshida said. Even steps like putting U.S. and E.U. researchers on each other’s peer review panels “really provides a lot of insight into what people are doing and starts people matching up and working together,” she said.

“The challenge is: Once you start this, how do you keep it moving?” Yoshida said. The key is to convince funding agencies, program officers, and scientists on each side that there is benefit, she said, and not simply writing reports “because it’s good for diplomacy, but because there is something there that really helps everyone.”

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