Science - February 5, 2004

EU commissioner Busquin full of praise for Wageningen

“Investing in universities is the best investment for the future,” claimed Philippe Busquin, European research commissioner during a lightning visit to Wageningen. He would like to see more specialisation taking place and promised to ensure that Brussels would back this up with more money for fundamental research.

“If we want to be a leading player in the global knowledge-based society, Europe has to cherish its universities. Universities are not only centres of research and learning, but also important for the development of the regional economy. Money invested in universities is money well spent,” said Busquin during his visit to Wageningen last Monday. He was here to promote the three EU projects that Wageningen coordinates: Safe Foods, Nutrigenomics and Welfare Quality. These are designed to give European consumers answers to their questions concerning the safety, quality, health and ethics of the food they eat. Busquin: “Consumers today want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced, and to base their choice of food on this knowledge. That’s why we have reversed the traditional ‘farm-to-fork’ approach to research and made it ‘fork-to-farm’.”

Busquin had praised Dutch research, and in particular Wageningen UR. “Holland has good research capacity and is well organised. Wageningen also has the advantage that it is a university with a specialisation.” The fact that the university merged with the DLO research institutes means that the distance from theory to practice is short. “The researchers are in touch with reality,” said the Belgian socialist. Busquin would also like to see top-level research in Europe join forces in the European Research Areas (ERA), virtual centres in which researchers from several countries collaborate on specific themes. This is one of the commissioner’s favourite topics: “We try to bring the best researchers on a particular subject together, to create a stimulating environment that is conducive to research and innovation. We have to ensure that we have enough critical mass to remain a global competitor.”

The EU has neglected fundamental research. The framework programmes are worth about five billion euros a year, but most of this money goes on applied and industrial research. The current 6th Framework Programme runs to 2007, and Busquin wants to see the research budget doubled in FP7, allowing about 2 billion of the 10.5 billion euros to be earmarked for fundamental research. The money for research will be awarded through a European Research Council, which he plans to set up. This extra investment will be necessary if the EU wants to achieve the targets it has set. During the Eurotop held in Lisbon in 2000, it was agreed that by 2010 the EU should become ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’. Two years later in Barcelona this goal was translated into monetary terms: three percent of the Gross European Product should go towards research. At present the EU and Dutch levels are about two percent. Only Finland, Sweden and Iceland already spend more of their GDP on research than the target. According to Busquin the target is not unrealistic: “More money for research is a question of life and death.”

Gert van Maanen

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