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Friday, August 29, 2008

Science in Europe in July, 08-many awesome news!

An amazingly interesting collection of news on the science in EU. And this time, they are good!
  • Research infrastructures offered EU legal umbrella
  • EU 27 eye increased EU action on space
  • EU eyes 'supergrid' to harness Saharan sun
  • EU 27 to identify joint public research topics by end 2008
  • France challenges world university ranking
  • EU nations urged to pool public research budgets
  • Commission urges solution to soil degradation

Research infrastructures offered EU legal umbrella

17 July 2008

Pan-European research infrastructures such as CERN, the world's largest nuclear research organisation, are to be granted special legal status and exemption from VAT under a new proposal by the Commission.

The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRIexternal ) was launched in 2002 to develop a coherent approach to policymaking on research infrastructures in Europe and, in parallel, to conduct negotiations between member states on concrete initiatives for such structures at European level.

Examples of current research infrastructures include CERNexternal , the world's largest particle physics laboratory and Géantexternal , the pan-European data communications network for research and education.

The Commission adopted a proposalPdf external for a Regulation on the Community legal framework for a European Research Infrastructures (ERI) on 16 July 2008.

The framework is aimed at facilitating the joint establishment and operation of research facilities of European interest between the EU 27 and associated countries.

Indeed, as ERIs will be established as international bodies, they will be exempted from VAT, explained Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik. The new framework will however only apply to new ventures, with existing ones such as Switzerland-based CERN, retaining their existing status.

According to the Commission, the proposed framework was developed "in response to requests from the member states and the scientific community," which have indicated that the available national and international legal structures do not allow them to establish ERIs.

The legal framework would state that an ERI would be a legal entity

  • with legal personality and full legal capacity recognised in all member states;
  • based on membership with very flexible internal structure;
  • ruled by Community law, the law of the State of the statutory seat or of the State of operationm, and;
  • exempted from VAT and excise duties, with its procurement procedures unaffected by the Directive on public procurement.

As for the Commission's participation in ERIs, the EU executive does not exclude the possibility of becoming a member of certain individual infrastructures. No EU money is foreseen for them, but all ERIs "could compete" for funding under the Community R&D Framework Programme, said Potočnik.

He also said an EU legal framework could be proposed for other types of EU research cooperation activities and networks as well if "a need was expressed from bottom-up" from member states and other stakeholders.

The proposal for a regulation is one of five policy initiatives constituting the follow-up to the 2007 review of the European Research Area (ERA). source

My comment: Yay! Obviously I can't be more happy with this. I only don't quite understand why CERN wouldn't be counted in. It's like the biggest research centre in Europe and they want to exclude it from the goodies? That's kind of weird and I wonder why is that. But in any case, the new legislation will be very stimulating for creating new research centres in Europe and hopefuly soon enough, we'll have one in Bulgaria.

EU 27 eye increased EU action on space

23 July 2008

All member states are politically committed to promoting more EU action on space, the French Presidency said after a two-day informal meeting of the bloc's ministers for space. But the issue of where the money for this increased ambition will actually come from will only be discussed later.

EU ministers in charge of space affairs met in Kourou, the European Space Agency's main spaceport in French Guiana, on 21-22 July. On the agenda were the EU's overall space strategy, the role of space in fighting climate change and its contribution to Europe's competitiveness as well as potential synergies between civil and military space activities.

The message of the meeting is that "space is back" as one of the EU's policy priorities, said Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen after the meeting. He said the ministers had agreed that space policy plays an important role in overall European integration and acts as a catalyst for the development of new technologies. Verheugen also underlined that the ministers had agreed that independent access to space is of strategic importance to the EU in several areas, such as in combating climate change, bioterrorism and natural disasters.

In particular, the EU's new member states, which have traditionally not taken a big interest in space, now understand that the 21st century will be space-driven, said the French Minister for Higher Education and Research Valérie Pécresse, adding that "all member states have now agreed to play a political role" in the development of EU space policy. She also listed Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta among those to express an interest in joining the European Space Agency (ESA), which so far includes just 15 EU countries.

However, both Verheugen and Pécresse stressed that a concrete, increased budget for EU space activities must be agreed upon to ensure the long-term sustainability of such ambitious activities. So far, an operational EU budget for space only exists up to 2010. The expenditure should, according to Pécresse, be added to the current EU budget for research.

Increasing the EU's space budget could be discussed at a high-level conference that the Commission is currently preparing to launch discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the European space industry.

The ministers also discussed a French initiative to establish a European climate research centre to better exploit the data collected via meteorological satellites and bring together European climate change researchers. Ministers decided that no separate new centre was necessary, but stressed that cooperation between national activities in this regard would be strengthened within the framework of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). In addition, the Commission might conduct an in-depth analysis on space and climate change.

The aim of the meeting was to prepare the decisions to be made at the next Space Council, a joint meeting of EU competitiveness ministers and representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA) member states, set to take place on 26 September 2008. The subsequent ESA ministerial conference in November will then be expected to turn the decisions into concrete programmes. source

My comment: I didn't shorten this one, because it sounds so inspiring! Space is really our future and I'm so glad EU ministers finally started thinking about it. Obviously, it sounds kind of far fetched for countries like Bulgaria that still struggle to find their path and order, but our internal problems shouldn't stop us from dreaming our way forward. And space is the right direction.

EU eyes 'supergrid' to harness Saharan sun

25 July 2008

Massive solar power installations in the Sahara desert could feed the EU's growing energy demand via a new supergrid. The idea is backed by France and the UK, which is simultaneously trying to limit priority access for renewables to domestic grids.

If successful, the supergrid project could supply all of Europe's electricity needs, according to Arnulf Jaeger-Walden, who heads the EU's Institute for Energy in the Netherlands.

The idea is based on the construction of a €45 billion high voltage direct current (DC) grid that could transfer electricity produced by Saharan and North African solar installations to consumers thousands of kilometres away. The construction of a new DC grid would be necessary since most of the EU's existing power grids operate on the basis of alternating current (AC) and as such lose too much electricity over long distances to make such a project viable.

For the moment the idea, which has received the political backing of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, remains on the drawing board and is currently being developed by EU scientists.

No concrete funding commitments have yet been made by private or public investors at EU or member-state level.

While Brown is standing behind the ambitious Saharan supergrid project, the prime minister is being criticised for his stance on renewables at home.

Rather than stipulating that renewables "shall" have priority access to domestic grids, the UK wants to change the wording to "may" on the grounds that renewables do not necessarily need priority access to grids to increase their market share. Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes, Parliament's rapporteur on the renewables proposal, sharply criticised the proposed re-wording. source

My comment: I love this one. Although, I don't quite see those grids make it to Eastern and even Central Europe, they are still a good idea, because they will stimulate research, engineering and provide employment for both Africans and Europeans. It's a win-win situation for everyone if it's done the right way. And my guess is that countries that are left behind will find a way to compensate trough Russian gas and wind electricity, since we're more predisposed for that element. Cool! I only don't get the UK rewording problem, but the UK is weird.

EU 27 to identify joint public research topics by end 2008

18 July 2008

EU research ministers are set to agree on topics for joint public research in December. Before that, discussions are likely to focus on narrowing down the broad topics of food or energy security and healthy ageing to find subjects on which pre-commercial developments at national level are not yet underway.

The first meeting of EU-27 research ministers under the French Presidency, on 17 July, was a follow-up to the 'Ljubljana Processexternal ' aimed at better exploiting Europe's research potential and creating a genuine European Research Area (ERA).

The meeting was also the first opportunity to debate the Commission's Communication on joint public research programming to tackle major societal challenges.

The Presidency conclusionsexternal note that ministers have already identified four issues for which "effective coordination of European research could be quickly implemented":

  • Adapting agriculture to climate change to ensure food security;
  • implementing the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan);
  • embedded computing and future internet, and;
  • Alzheimer's disease.

However, with the exception of the Alzheimer's initiative, the level of concreteness of these initiatives is currently "very low", commented a member state representative. As for the subjects of joint programming in general, he noted that the final topics to be agreed upon will be "far more specific" than the current broad working topics like energy or ICT, adding that Alzheimer's was a good example of such a narrow topic. He said member states need to carefully analyse which topics are worth working together on. source

My comment: Hm, that's very broad if you ask me and probably would be utterly useless if it's left like this. It sounds much more like "let's have a metting to show Europe some activity". Lame.

France challenges world university ranking

18 July 2008

The French Senate has proposed developing a new European university ranking system to counter the powerful Shanghai world ranking, which is said to favour English-language institutions. With France holding the EU's six-month rotating presidency, the issue is likely to be discussed by EU education ministers in November.

The lack of harmonised data on French universities has lead to biased information on the country's higher education institutions and weakened the visibility of the research carried out in them, concludes a French Senate reportexternal on the ranking of higher education published early in July.

At national level, the lack of a transparent system distorts the allocation of human and financial resources, notes the report. At international level, it harms the attractiveness of France as a destination for foreign students and researchers and decreases the visibility of university research.

Another consequence, the report argues, is that exaggerated attention is given to the so-called Shanghai rankingexternal , an index for monitoring the research performance of universities around the world, which the Senate says "only partially and imperfectly reflects the reality". France's key bone of contention with the Shanghai index is that the number of citations of a institution's scientific research is used as a ranking factor. Paris says this works against countries that do not publish in English.

Pécresse is expected to raise the issue during a meeting of EU education ministers in November. source

My comment: Haha, have you expected anything else from France? I mean, who's guilty for not publishing in english? How come we all write our articles in english but they cannot? If you ask me, that's not problem of the ranking even though my guess is that it really is biased. Because science is essentially a mafia (ok, mob) and peopel quote other people only if they are their friends or they really cannot avoid it. I think this is the issue that must be solved, not the ranking of french universities.

EU nations urged to pool public research budgets

17 July 2008

The European Commission wants member states to pool together their money and brains to conduct joint research on major societal challenges such as ageing and energy security, saying purely individual efforts on such vast topics waste resources.

According to the Commission, some 85% of the public sector research in Europe is programmed, financed, monitored and evaluated at national level. Just 15% of European publicly financed civil R&D is financed in a cross-border collaborative manner (10% by intergovernmental organisations and schemes and 5% by the EU Framework Programme).

The EU executive has repeatedly voiced concern over this situation, saying fragmentation and duplication of research efforts are a major obstacle to the EU's chances of delivering on the Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs.

Presenting a Communication on joint programming on 15 July, Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik listed fighting climate change, securing energy supply, preventing major pandemics for diseases, preserving marine ecosystems and biodiversity, ensuring food quality and securing food supply as "the most shared challenges of our societies".

These are challenges that "can be addressed through research and technological development" and require a response at European if not global level, he added.

The ambition of the Commission's communicationPdf external is to allow cross-border research on these strategic areas by setting common research agendas, he explained.

He explained that joint programming is about public cooperation in strategic research areas where member states voluntarily decide to bring money and people together. It will also be up to the committed partners to identify common objectives and develop and implement the research agenda.

Joint programming "does not require all member states to be involved. It can be à la carte, but such partnerships will be open to any member state or associated country to join whenever they want," Potočnik added. source

My comment: That's so important! Too bad countries and institutions are too much interested in competing with each other. Also, the question of fair participation stands. For example, different countries to be able to participate with different resources and have their rights protected. Obviously I'm talking about smaller countries like mine. Because here it's hard enough to get any money for science, but if the attitude would be...bad, people simply won't want to participate. And that's is a loss since there are quality people even here.

Commission urges solution to soil degradation

23 July 2008

Officials from various environmental departments and organisations are calling for stalled environmental legislation on the proposed Soil Directive to be put into law by March 2009.

The proposed directive was rejected by a blocking minority – including France – in the Council in a vote in December 2007 (EurActiv 20/12/07).

But speaking at a 22 July , the European Environmental Bureau Secretary General John Hontelez expressed hope triggered by the fact that the French Presidency included the Soil Directive in its agenda.

"France has a big responsibility," said Hontelez, "because it is now in the presidency and was also in the blocking minority last year". This notion was echoed by Ladislav Miko from the Commission's Environment Directorate General: "Despite all the figures and research we have still not agreed on the directive which is quite worrying."

Environmental risks

Soil is a non-renewable resource, and once lost, cannot be retrieved, agreed all the participants. "Soil degradation is an EU problem and needs an EU response," said Miko. He produced some telling figures, showing that UK soil has been losing 0.6% of its organic matter annually for the past 25 years. This is equal to losing 13 megatonnes of carbon per year, the equvialent of five million cars, he said. Considering the Kyoto target of achieving a 27 megatonne carbon reduction by 2010, the importance of soil is obvious, he said.

Sealing – an area of soil surface covered by an impermeable material such as concrete – was highlighted as a particularly troublesome issue, as 9% of European land is currently covered by impermeable material, thus increasing the chance of flooding as was seen in the UK last summer.

Miko said member states' concerns about adding further legislation to existing national soil legislation miss the point because "we have to look at this in a more holistic way". "We need an EU-wide policy," he stated. source

My comment: I find this one kind of worrying, especially the environmental risk from it. I mean it's normal to question additional legislation, but obviously, we don't do enough on this one. I know the attitude in Spain-the more concrete in your yard, the best. And that's simply not right.

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