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Friday, April 25, 2008

Science in Europe, February, 2008

In this edition:

Scientists issue safety warning on cosmetic nanomaterials

5 March 2008

An EU scientific committee has concluded that current risk-assessment methods for nanomaterials used in cosmetics, in particular sunscreen, are not thorough enough.

A "review of the safety of the insoluble nanomaterials presently used in sunscreens is required," concludes a scientific opinionPdf external on the safety of nanomaterials in cosmetic products. The opinion was issued by the Commission's Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCPexternal ), which addresses questions linked to the safety and allergenic properties of cosmetic products and ingredients with respect to their impact on consumer health.

In its opinion, adopted in December 2007 and made public in late February 2008, the committee recommends a case-by-case risk assessment of all nanoparticles used in cosmetics. It argues that this should be done either through validating existing safety evaluation methods for nanomaterials or by developing new ones specifically for nanomaterials.

The opinion also calls for the "urgent development of new methodologies to assess [the] skin penetration" of biopersistant nanomaterials which can accumulate in organs and which scientists consider more hazardous to health than the biodegradable ones, in particular with repeated application of cosmetic products.

The SCCP was asked to address the safety evaluation of nanomaterials for use in cosmetic products and to determine whether the previous opinions on nanomaterials currently used in sunscreen products need to be revised, following the publication of the UK's Royal Society & Royal Academy of Engineering reportexternal on the opportunities and uncertainties of nanotechnologies.

The report suggested that nanomaterials should be treated as new chemicals from a risk point of view and that evaluation of skin absorption should be considered for both normal and diseased skin.

The use of nanoparticles in sunscreen is just one example of the use of nanotechnology to improve consumer products. The argument is that while zinc is one of the most effective UV blockers, the large size of its particles makes it look thick and unattractive when applied as a sunscreen. Pulverising zinc into nanoparticles makes the sunscreen texture more fluid, transparent and attractive to use.

Other personal care products containing engineered nanomaterials such as deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, anti-wrinkle cream or nail polish are also already commercially available despite the lack of any nanomaterials regulation or requirements for product safety testing.

Nanoparticles and materials are so small that they can be inhaled, swallowed, absorbed through the skin or injected into the body, and yet their behaviour inside the body is still unknown, making the potential health and environmental effects impossible to predict.

The European Commission is currently completing a review of existing EU regulations to see whether specific nanotech legislation is needed to cover risks in relation to nanomaterials, or whether these materials can be considered as being part of, for example, the EU's chemicals legislation REACH. A Communication on the issue is foreseen in 2008.source

My comment: Can't agree more! And I really didn't know they put nano-zinc into sun-screens. I prefer the used of not-tested materials to be labeled!

Europe to link researchers and students worldwide

3 March 2008

GÉANT, a network of European computers linking national research and education networks, will be connected to its equivalents in other regions of the world to create a global research network allowing seamless cooperation between scientists and students from Finland to Latin America, the Commssion has annonced.

"Europe can now bring together the best minds in the world to tackle the challenges that we all face," said Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding, as she announced an extra €90m of Community funding between 2008 and 2012 for the "third-generation GÉANT".

The network was launched in 2001 as a first step towards the establishment of the European Research Area (ERAexternal ). Its aim is to provide an infrastructure to support the advanced communication needs of the scientific community and to research state-of-the-art communication technologies.

The network was upgraded to GÉANT2 in 2005, providing faster and more powerful services and end-to-end connectivity for the scientists. The network currently connects 34 countries through 30 national research and education networks (NRENsexternal ) and is co-funded by the Commission and the NRENs themselves.

It contributes, for example, to the EU's radio astronomy project, which links the world's largest radio telescopes in China, Europe, South Africa and Chile to a supercomputer in the Netherlands, which produces real-time imaging thanks to the "massive data-flows from the GÉANT network". According to the Commission, GÉANT has also enabled "ground-breaking research collaboration" in the fields of climate change and biotechnology.

The upgraded GÉANT3 will now establish high-speed computer links with emerging regional research network infrastructures in the Balkans, the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions, as well Asia, southern Africa and Latin America. These links are established with the aim of creating a single global research and education network. source
My comment: Cool! Can I say more?

EU technology institute to start operations by 2010

12 March 2008

Even after the final approval of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), opinions diverge on the necessity of the institute, which was originally deisgned as the European rival to the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Nevertheless, concrete research, education and innovation actions are expected to start by 2010.

After the Parliament's Industry Committee, in late February 2008, approved the Council's common positionPdf external on the EITexternal , the regulation was finally adopted in the House by second reading on 11 March. The institute is expected to start work towards its establishment this summer.

MEP and Parliament rapporteur Reino Paasilinna qualified the compromise between the Council and the Parliament "a success for Parliament" as it "stresses the role of innovation". "Too often, our brilliant students and researchers do not reap the rewards of their work simply because there is no one to help them turn research results into commercial products," he said.

Meanwhile, the Commission is urging the member states to reform their national higher education systems in a drive to bring business and academia closer together to achieve quicker transfer of research into innovation in services and products.

Once the EIT is established, the first Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICsexternal ) on climate change, renewable energy and next-generation information and communication technologies (ICTs) are expected to be established within eighteen months. If operations begin in summer 2008, the first KICs could see the light of day by 2010.

Even if the major topics of the new institute generally appear environmentally friendly, Green MEPs voted against the whole proposal. They qualified the plans, which were originally put forward by Commission President Barroso, as "lofty" and called the agreed budget a "joke".

"While the Greens supported the original plans for an EIT, the initiative has degenerated into a farce: poorly defined and lacking a realistic, workable budget," explained MEP David Hammerstein his Party's decision to vote against the report. "We believe no EIT would be better than an ill-conceived and under-funded EIT," he added.

According to the original Commission proposal, 2.3 billion euro would have been necessary for the creation of six KICs. The compromise proposal, however, foresees the creation of just "two or three" KICs as the Commission's contribution, 308 million euro, is the only concrete project money earmarked for the EIT.

Contrary to the MIT, the European institute will not resemble a university in a specific geographic location, but will instead be a virtual network of universities, companies and other stakeholders expected to form the KICs. Each KIC must have at least three partner organisations, based in two or more member states. At least one of these partners must be a university and at least one a private company.

My comment: Kind of agree with the Greens. The budget is well too cut. But well, better this than nothing, I guess.

EU leaders to address research spending shortfalls

11 March 2008

Although European R&D budgets vary widely, from 0.4% of GDP in Cyprus to 3.8% in Sweden, average spending has stagnated at around 1.84% since the mid-1990s, a shortcoming the EU's competitiveness ministers have asked leaders to address at the Spring Summit.

Despite multiple EU initiatives aimed at increasing investment in research in R&D to 3% of GDP by 2010 - a target agreed upon by EU leaders in order to meet the bloc's Lisbon growth and jobs goals - Eurostat figuresexternal show that the objective remains far out of reach.

Sweden (3.82%) and Finland (3.45%) remain the biggest spenders in terms of percentage of GDP, followed by Germany (2.51%), Austria (2.45%) and Denmark (2.43%). However, if measured by volume, Germany, France and the UK continue to spend the most - €58, €38 and €32 respectively. Together, they are responsible for around 60% of total R&D expenditure, which amounted to €210 billion in the EU 27 in 2006. The lowest R&D intensities were registered in Cyprus (0.42%), Romania (0.46%) and Bulgaria (0.48%).

The new statistics also rank countries according to the proportion of scientists and engineers in their population. Here, the EU-27 average was 4.8% in 2006. The highest shares of scientists and engineers were found in Belgium (7.9%), Ireland (6.8%) and the Nordic countries (6.7-6.0%) and the lowest in Portugal (2.7%), Bulgaria, Austria and Slovakia (all 3.0%).

Increasing the number of scientists throughout the bloc will be a key consideration at this week's Spring Summit (13-14 March), expected to consider ways to speed up progress towards the Lisbon agenda objectives of more competitiveness, growth and jobs. Ahead of the meeting, the EU-27 ministers in charge of competitiveness calledPdf external on leaders, in late February 2008, "to invest more and more effectively" in research, innovation and higher education at all levels and to reinforce efforts to achieve the 3% R&D investment target.

The ministers also want EU head of states and government to "take concrete steps" to increase human resources for science and technology and to "enhance the mobility and career prospects of researchers" by building a European Research Area (ERA). The aspiration is to remove all obstacles to the cross-border mobility of knowledge in the EU and allow for free movement of knowledge, defined as a "fifth freedom". It would, for example, include initiatives to remove barriers to researchers wishing to work in another member state.source

My comment: Haha, read the last part. I want ministers to take concrete steps to increase salaries of researchers like me. Cuz right now, being a scientist is like a penalty.

ICT industry wants more women engineers

10 March 2008

The Commission, together with leading technology companies, is trying to get more young women interested in ICT careers in a drive to avoid a predicted shortage of some 300,000 qualified engineers by 2010.

"It is unacceptable that Europe lacks qualified ICT staff. If this shortage of computer scientists and engineers is not addressed, it will eventually slow down European economic growth," said Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding, addressing a conferenceexternal exploring the potential for women in the ICT sector.

The conference, held on 6 March 2008, just two days before International Women's Dayexternal , showcased a joint initiativeexternal by the Commission and a number of leading IT companiesexternal "to give young women a taste of what a job in ICT would be like".

"We need to overcome common stereotypes which describe ICT careers as boring and too technical for women," Reding told the conference, which also discussed best practice on how to get girls and young women interested in taking up ICT careers as well as possible educational barriers.

Encouraged by the experience, the Commission, together with the private sector, is to draft a "European Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT" by next year's Women's Day.

Increasing human resources in science and technology is one of the key targets of the Lisbon agenda in order to boost competitiveness and increase growth. According to the Commission, the ICT industry alone contributes to one fourth of EU's total growth and 4% of its jobs. Yet the sector is set to face a skills shortage of some 300,000 qualified engineers.

Using the existing pool of highly trained women is seen as one way to avoid the shortage and increase human resources in science and technology.

According to recent Eurostat statisticsexternal , in most of the EU 27 over 50% of science and technology human resources were female in 2006. The highest proportion of females employed in the science and technology sector was found in Lithuania (72.0%) and Estonia (69.7%), whereas in absolute terms, Germany employs the highest number of women in science and technology, 6.2 million. The vast majority of the EU's female HRSTO work in services: 27 million compared with just two million in manufacturing. source

My comment: That's kind of fun! We want more women in engineering. What for, dear gentlemen? Ok, just joking! The problem in science isn't the lack of women, but the lack of general interest and perspective for good and WELL-PAID job. Fix that and you'll have all the women you need. And even some more!

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