Bridging the gap with the public

EFDA Newsletter (E.N.): During FP6 the big European challenge in the field of energy (e.g. security of supply, acceptability, sustainability) have come out in full. Being an economist yourself, what are your ideas to tackle this issue?

Janez Potočnik (J.P.): Well, the escalation of global energy prices might turn out to have been a blessing in disguise, since it has forced us to search for more earthfriendly, sustainable and cost-efficient energy sources. And we have made some progress; we’re using financial incentives and emissions quotas to help make new energy sources more attractive to investors. However, in the long term, a radical transformation of the global energy market is unavoidable. I think we are beginning to face up to this challenge in Europe, for example by supporting the development of advanced renewable technologies. That said, we can’t underestimate the work involved. We need to anticipate and stimulate technological development years in advance. My job will be to galvanise the work of European research teams, so that we can keep Europe at the forefront of energy source development.

E.N.: What are, in your opinion, the main advantages and concerns for the EU to increase research expenditure to approach 3% of GDP in the EU 25?

J.P.: I think the political will is already clear on this. Most European countries have now set objectives to meet this target and new Member States have been particularly enthusiastic. However, there just isn’t enough progress on this yet. Budget constraints are a continuing problem, along with the attractions of cheaper options in Asia for R&D. Our best chance is the momentum created by the new Commission, which gives us an opportunity to reinvigorate the Lisbon process and the European knowledge economy.

E.N.: The Commission is starting to prepare plans for the forthcoming FP7. Which will be, in your opinion, the most important topics?

J.P.: I’m focussing very much on making the case for a strong link between knowledge and growth. In a global world, the European model – with its high social and environmental standards – can only be successful if we build on Europe’s traditional strength: knowledge. There is a clear case for doubling EU research funds to support key technological sectors, and to continue establishing a real European Research Area with mutually supportive national research programmes, and collaborative research. We will also be putting forward the idea of a European Research Council to support small teams of researchers and we will be asking for more support for the European Technology Platforms in their efforts to nurture scientific innovation. The lesson from FP6 is that we have to make everything simpler in FP7; the whole process needs to be more user-friendly to attract SMEs and those with less experience of European programmes to get involved.We’ve got to get our priority research themes right from the beginning, particularly in key areas like health, biotechnology and nanotechnology. I am particularly keen to see us working with our partners in industry and the scientific community on this.

E.N.: Europe is at the forefront of fusion research. The first design of a ‘next step’ fusion machine started already in the early 1980s. Now the target is in reach and ITER construction should be soon agreed among the partners. The European fusion community has big expectations from this important project. What are your expectations from the ITER project?

J.P: ITER is essential: its completion will mean a large-scale, sustainable energy source for the benefit of everyone in the future.We expect that total costs for its construction and operation should amount to around 10 billion over 35 years. Once built, the reactor will be able to generate power of about 500 million watts; this will stand as an unprecedented testament to global scientific and technological cooperation. It’s vital to Europe’s future too, in that it will draw together a wide range of cutting-edge technologies central to the long-term competitiveness of European industry.

E.N.: On November 26 the EU Competitiveness Council gave the Commission the go ahead sign to conclude the international negotiations and bring ITER to Europe. Do you expect to fulfil this request in the short term?

J.P.: Negotiations with our ITER partners are ongoing and I don’t think it’s useful to commit ourselves to any sort of deadline at this stage. The Commission is doing everything possible to secure a consensus amongst all 6 parties to have the reactor based at Cadarache. In our view this is the best site from a scientific, technological and environmental point of view.We are still in talks with our Japanese partners, looking in detail at how to satisfy Japan’s aspiration to maximise their interest in the project. One option could be that the EU would contribute to other fusion initiatives based in Japan to complement ITER as part of a broader approach to mastering fusion energy. We hope to conclude our negotiations in time to start construction before the end of 2005.

E.N.: The results of the Eurobarometer 2002 (Energy) show that 85% of the people questioned are not aware of EU energy-related R&D. Efforts to improve the communication between the EU institutions and the European citizens are growing. What are your recommendations to improve the situation?

Dr. Janez Potočnik is the Commissioner for Science and Research under the new Barroso Commission. For several years, Janez Potočnik has been the point man between EU headquarters in Brussels and Ljubljana. Since January 2002, the doctor of economics has served as Slovenian minister of European affairs. Previously, he served as the negotiator responsible for securing Slovenia’s membership in the EU.

For his CV please see:

J.P.: I think we’ve got to promote better understanding amongst people about why science is relevant to all of us. As scientists and researchers, we have a responsibility to keep the general public up to date with scientific and technological developments and how they impact on everyday life. In our current research programmes, the Commission is already conscious of the importance of communication: I can refer you to some of our initiatives in the Science and Society Action Plan, for example, the European Science Week. We are really making young people a priority now; our annual Young Scientists’ Contest is providing a great opportunity for young people from across Europe to come together to learn from each other and to meet some of Europe’s most prominent scientists. In recent years, up to a third of the contestants have been young women and we hope this reflects a growing interest in science amongst women in Europe. Improving communication is an on-going project for me – one of my central issues during my time as Commissioner will be to help bridge the gap with the public.

E.N.: The concept of European Research Area (ERA) is now or is becoming a reality in several fields. What further efforts do you think will be needed to move forward during the next framework programme?

J.P.: It is great to see how well the ERA has developed since my predecessor, Philippe Busquin, launched the project five years ago. But it is fair to say that there is a lot of work still to do to achieve a truly integrated “single market” for science and technology in Europe. Part of the answer has been to use an “open method of co-ordination” with Member States, which has allowed us to learn from each other and to develop complementary policies. But this is just the beginning. My plan will be to ask Member States for greater political involvement and to push forward EU guidelines on key issues like human resources and fiscal incentives. I think this is how we will create leading markets for the best European technologies in the long term.

E.N.: How will you help to make a career in science more attractive for the younger generation? What kind of funding will be available to young researchers? A possibility could be to create a European post-doctoral scheme with a clear career progression built into it. What is your opinion on such a system?

Specific objectives of the 2005 Researchers in Europe Initiative:

• to improve and promote a better public understanding of the contribution of researchers to society, in terms of innovation, job creation, competitiveness and economic growth;

• to encourage more young people to embark on careers in R&D and contribute thereby to increase the number of researchers in Europe

• to contribute to the overall attractiveness of the EU as a reference area for research talent from all over the world and raise awareness of the potential of the European Research Area as a European Employment market for researchers.

Marie Curie Fellowships provide European placements for pre and post-doctoral researchers, usually up to the age of 35, and for experienced researchers.

For more information see:

J.P.: Well, it’s really about attracting the best talents to Europe, while at the same time stimulating the brightest people living here to enter research professions and stay over the long term. Looking at what has been done already, we’ve got the Marie Curie actions, which are available to researchers at various stages of their careers.We’ve also tried to tackle mobility issues by launching the European researchers’ mobility portal. This pools job vacancies for researchers and gives them access to about 200 national and regional centres for help and local support. Our next step will be our recommendations to Member States about developing a European Researcher’s Charter and a Code of conduct for the recruitment of researchers. With these initiatives in place, we’ll be able to start building a genuine European labour market for researchers and offer more attractive career prospects. To begin with, we’re planning the 2005 Researchers in Europe Initiative, a high profile public awareness campaign about the role of researchers. Here again capturing the minds of schoolchildren is crucial. Our own surveys have shown that almost six in ten children find science at school difficult and uninteresting. It is generally agreed that science curricula are simply too heavy in content and too light in context. Commission programmes like the European Science Week are working well to respond to this problem and we have recently signed up another 7.7 million euro for a new promotional initiative, which brings universities, museums and schools together through special events and internet links. Your question on the possibility of a European post-doctoral scheme is an interesting one. Frankly, it would be naïve to think that, even with a doubling or a tripling of the budget for the Marie Curie actions, we would get immediate results from one central scheme. I think to make real in-roads we will need to bring about more significant structural changes in the European research environment. What is most important is that our future initiatives tackle the obstacles faced by researchers at all stages of their careers, including improving access to pathways between academia and industry, as well as addressing the international flows of research talent to and from Europe, the US and Asia.

More information on the Eurobarometer:


For more information on the European Research Area (ERA) see: _en.html