ITER financing still not settled
By Dafydd ab Iago | Wednesday 26 May 2010
Despite an approaching deadline of 17 June, research ministers, meeting in Brussels on 26 May, only aired their differences as to the EU’s position on financing the ITER fusion project. More positively, though, ministers were able to file off a series of conclusions on improving governance of research, simplifying research and innovation programmes and on improving innovation.
Despite the failure to secure a position on ITER, Cristina Garmendia, Spanish minister for science and innovation, told journalists that her Presidency programme was almost “completed”. To their credit, the Spaniards have underlined the importance of improved social conditions for researchers and boosting mobility in practical ways. The Spaniards, under Garmendia, also led European ministers, on 26 May, into adopting conclusions on the future development of the European Research Area as well as simplified and more efficient European research programmes.
In their conclusions, ministers admit the “urgent” need for an in-depth rethinking of the way European research and innovation programmes are designed and implemented. The aim is to make programmes simple, efficient and interoperable as well as to respond to the demands of the scientific community. The Council claims to have a series of guidelines for developing the ERA.
As for innovation, the Council adopted conclusions on creating an innovative Europe. Five main areas for action are mentioned: financing, market, governance, regional priorities and people. Suggestions include the promotion of adequate incentives to attract private investors or boosting the potential of public procurement for innovative processes and services as well as removing barriers in innovative markets. The Commission now promises to publish a European research and innovation plan in the autumn.
The major point for discussion was the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Ministers mulled over the Commission’s recent communication on the ITER. The Commission is asking for more money, but admits that a mechanism for dealing with any further overruns is needed. The Competitiveness Council had previously, on 16 November 2009, reaffirmed its support for ITER, albeit subject to “credible” cost assessments, “acceptable” cost and cost containment as well as a “realistic” timetable for the construction. Ministers also want “sound” management of the project at all levels.
ITER has some major opponents at a practical level, with the Germans unwilling to commit to writing a blank check for the project. So far, at least, the Germans are only willing to fill the temporary financial hole requested by the Commission in its communication. Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn admitted that time is pressing. The EU should finalise its position on ITER by 17 June. She called on the Council to give a political assurance on financing a sustainable (ie long-term) financial framework for the nuclear fusion programme. The Spanish minister, however, could only confirm the continuing lack of agreement on ITER financing.
Ministers also discussed, once more, the setting of national targets in the field of research. Whilst the March 2010 European Council confirmed 3% of GDP as the R&D target for 2020, it only invited member states to set their own ‘indicative’ national R&D targets. This would take account of member states’ relative starting positions and national circumstances. The European Council is now set, on 17-18 June, to endorse only ‘indicative’ national targets for R&D.
Ministers, though, are already having a tough time maintaining current levels of spending on research and higher education (see other article). “Each one of them will battle strongly with their own financial ministers to ensure that investment will not be cut back,” said an optimistic Geoghegan-Quinn. The spirit of the times, though, obviously favours cuts. The commissioner herself was forced to recognise this mean spirit when surrendering her Irish ministerial and other pensions worth over €100,000.
Garmendia appeared more understanding. “Many countries are not looking at what should be done, but at what can be done,” she admitted.
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