Q: Thirty years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome brought the European Economic Community into being, membership has doubled from six to 12 member states, most of them with increasingly carefully targeted science policies. Why does the Commission now feel that such a massive program of collaborative R&D is important?
FASELLA: Because over the past three decades science has become both more expensive and more valuable. Its greater cost imposes a new relationship on entities, whether governments, companies or private associations, that have the financial resources to support science. Also, collaboration is essential for certain large projects simply because even European countries which in one sense are as rich as the United States are very small by comparison.
The greater value of science today means it has become more important to the EEC— which, after all, is an economic organization. It also stems from the blurring of the distinction between science and technology. While technology is more dependent upon science these days, the opposite is also true. When CERN Director Herwig Schopper needed magnets for the LEP electron-positron collider being completed in Geneva, he had to get industry to design them.
Q: But the Community has always been involved in R&D, without this becoming politically contentious. Indeed, the EEC can be traced in part to the Euratom Treaty relating to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
FASELLA: That's true. There was also work in other frontier domains of the time such as coal and steel. What we now realize is that we cannot draw such broad lines any more. For example, it would be foolish if not impossible to pursue nuclear research but not materials or computing. Everything is more integrated, and we have gradually recognized that it is very much the business of an economic community to include science and technology as a major element of policy.
The Framework program is officially formalized in the Single European Act. [Following a referendum in Ireland on May 26, the act has now been ratified by all 12 member states.] The first modification of the Treaty of Rome, the Single Act covers many other things, including cooperation in foreign policy, a determination to achieve a real common market by 1992, and efforts to promote solidarity between the more and less developed parts of Europe. But in the realm of R&D it transforms into a legal instrument a growing conviction, first of scientists and industrialists and then public opinion, that science and technology should and can be used to promote improved competitiveness without jeopardizing the environment and quality of life.
Areas for Joint Action
Q: How will these policies be translated into concrete action?
FASELLA: The Commission, after consulting member states, scientists themselves and the users of research in industry (including agriculture), has identified eight areas where there seems merit and added value in working together. These are: quality of life, ranging from campaigns against cancer and AIDS to pollution control; initiatives toward an information society, including telecommunications; the modernization of traditional industries through novel technologies such as lasers; biotechnology, with its implications for agriculture; a comprehensive range of energy projects, including nuclear safety; science and technology designed to meet the particular needs of the developing world; exploratory work on the exploitation of the sea bed and marine resources; and a "stimulation plan" of exchanges and cooperation among scientists.
Of course, we also use sound criteria to break down these gross lines into specific projects with clear added value when carried out as joint exercises. We believe that our proposed budget for the whole program is very small in relation to the likely outcome—especially when you remember that we always try to find partners for particular projects who are sufficiently interested to contribute half of the money themselves.
Q: Everyone would understand the need for collaborative work in highly expensive fields such as nuclear fusion and "big science," but some people might question why work on AIDS or cancer, for example, needs to be conducted on a European scale.
FASELLA: One answer is that in both domains there are important epidemiological aspects—the detection of new carcinogens and the statistical evaluation of the effectiveness of new treatments, for example. Clearly, by basing joint protocols on results from 30 million people we can reach significant results much more rapidly than with, say, the 6 million of West Germany alone. Regarding AIDS, we began to work on this problem very early. There was a meeting in September 1983 at which Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier discussed the then-unresolved question of whether the African form of the disease differed from that in the U.S.A. This led to informal but practically very useful cooperation between American researchers and those in Europe—particularly in Belgium, because of the special relation between Belgium and its former colony Zaire.
I should emphasize that we do not plan to take over the whole of European medical research, only to intervene when there is merit in common action. Remember too that our medical work is based on "concerted action," which means that we pay only for the extra costs of coordination rather than the entire research.
Q: The British government seems to have had difficulty in understanding some of these arguments. The U.K. technology minister, Geoffrey Pattie, said recently that he disputed the need for joint research in fields such as cancer and AIDS.
FASELLA: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I do not really know whether it is within the competence of a minister of technology to speak authoritatively about epidemiology. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we have failed in explaining the importance of this work.
Another area where collaboration seems to me essential is in environmental protection. Our Joint Research Center, for example, centered at Ispra in Italy, has made major contributions such as the development of desulfurization processes for combustion gases. Pollutants do not have to carry passports, so work on monitoring and standards cannot be conducted on a national basis.
Q: It must be an embarrassment, then, that the European Commission seems to have failed to persuade member countries to agree on new protection limits for radiation levels in food and drinking water following the Chernobyl incident.
FASELLA: We have a set of recommendations on this matter, but the science has to be matched against economic, commercial and political considerations and public opinion. The fact that we have difficulty in attaining consensus is hardly surprising when even individual countries often find it far from easy to decide on standards. In the U.S.A., the Midwestern states have a different attitude toward acid rain than the Northeastern states. It would be surprising if it were not so. But that does not mean that a common approach is unnecessary.
Take another field, one about which I believe Mr. Pattie does agree: telecommunications. We feel that a Community perspective is vital here so that, among other things, we have common norms and standards, which are a prerequisite for a real common market. In commercial terms, this is especially important for small and medium-sized firms, because large companies have their own ways of becoming international. A very advanced but very small firm may not be able to reach the advantages of scale economies unless it can produce its own highly specialized products in sufficient numbers for sale in a large market.
Q: Everyone has heard about Europe's butter mountains and other agricultural surpluses. Given biotechnology's great power to effect biological transformations, why isn't it being used more forcefully to tackle these problems?
FASELLA: Biotechnology is no magic wand. But it does have tremendous potential and it's right that the Community finances work of this sort because it is out of the Community budget that the present imbalance is being financed. The basic problem here, of course, is that if you go for high-added-value products, such as carnations, strawberries or fine wine, the market is limited, whereas if you choose bulk materials there is still competition with oil as a feedstock. The price of ethanol fermented from sugar beet, for example, is still quite high compared with that produced from oil.
One specific problem is that within the EEC the prices of starch and sugar—major biotechnology feedstocks—are determined by Common Agriculture Policy support prices and are much higher than world prices. So companies have an incentive to locate their factories outside the Community and send us their high-added-value materials. As the Commission's vice president, Karl-Heinz Narjes, pointed out recently, this makes us into a colony, supplying cheap raw materials to industry located elsewhere and importing the resulting manufactured products. The Commission therefore has proposed to the Council of Ministers that industry be able to obtain starch and sugar at prices prevailing outside the Community.
Q: What have been the main fruits of Community collaboration in biotechnology?
FASELLA: Particularly significant is recent work in Cologne, Leiden and Ghent showing that genes can be transferred not only in dicotyledonous plants, which has been possible for some years, but also in monocotyledons such as rye. This has great implications for the genetic manipulation and improvement of some of the world's major crops. But there's a long list of other breakthroughs. They range from methods developed in Aachen to prevent organisms in bioreactors from becoming inhibited by their own products to the development by Dutch contractors at Rijswijk of a greatly simplified process for making foot-and-mouth disease vaccine.
Q: Would these things really not have happened without Community support?
FASELLA: That's hard to say in any one case, but clearly the EEC program has had a catalytic effect overall. The same applies to the growing collaboration that has characterized electronics and information technology, which at one time were frequently criticized for their insularity and nationalism. Recently we've seen Philips in the Netherlands come together with Siemens in West Germany to develop advanced memory chip technology. Britain's ICL and Bull in France have joined Siemens to support a research center on artificial intelligence. Maybe such things would have happened anyway. All we can say is that a few years ago Europe was trailing in these fields, but that following the EEC's political initiative companies have begun to take such steps.
Q: Presumably, collaboration is likely to be most effective when it brings together different skills or even research workers with different casts of mind.
FASELLA: Exactly, and that is why we put so much emphasis on our "stimulation plan." The motive behind this may be hard to un derstand in a country like the U.S.A., where it is quite normal for a bright young person to take a B.S. in California, then go to Harvard and move to Wisconsin and so on. In Europe, students today, in proportion to their numbers, are less mobile than they were in the Middle Ages. Research workers too do not travel as widely as they should. Moreover, a survey by the European Science Foundation has confirmed that the quality of research is closely linked with the mobility of researchers and the density of contacts they establish with one another.
So, after consultation with senior scientists like Ilya Prigogine, John Kendrew and others, we decided that we should establish a scheme offering help for people in the hard sciences, from mathematics to molecular biology, who wanted to collaborate with colleagues in other countries but found this otherwise impossible to do. The program has been highly successful, and we are planning to extend it when the new Framework budget is settled shortly. With around 420,000 research workers in EEC countries, the scope is considerable.
Q: How precisely does the stimulation plan work, and are there any tangible results yet?
FASELLA: We put virtually no constraints on the scheme, and are prepared to listen to any scientists with a good case. Sometimes it's simply a matter of providing a scholarship for an individual to move from one laboratory to another. At the other end of the scale, it may mean orchestrating a complex operation linking laboratories from several different countries, sharing tasks, exchanging people and bringing together diverse resources such as instrumentation and computing. One exciting outcome is the development of digital circuits and components for a future optical computer. Professor Desmond Smith in Edinburgh, Scotland, was largely responsible for launching this venture, which attracted collaborators from five member states.
Most recently, we have brought materials scientists together with neurobiologists and mathematicians interested in developing algorithms describing information processing. The aim is to develop devices that mimic the properties of neurons—of being adaptive, connective, and of establishing nonlinear systems. When these three fraternities came together to discuss the project, they had never met before, except in some cases through the literature.
Q: In recent comments about the Framework program, the British government has questioned whether the Community is getting "value for money" out of collaborative research. How do you monitor these projects to ensure quality? Or is that inherently impossible, given the nature of science?
FASELLA: It is very difficult to put economic value on research, especially fundamental work, while it is also very important to ensure efficient use of resources in the more industrially oriented projects. All involved certainly have to agree at the outset on the terms of reference against which progress can be evaluated. Our basic approach is to ask independent panels of scientists including members from countries such as the U.S.A. and Japan to assess EEC work—and to sign their evaluations, so that their judgments are on the record for later reference. I am sure that our monitoring methods are no less stringent than for any national programs. But of course they need to be continuously improved.
Q: What are your views about the recent report of a group chaired by Harry Becker, research director of Shell, which suggested that the EEC's Joint Research Center was over-bureaucratic and out of touch with the needs of industry?
FASELLA: It was quite a useful report, and we are trying to put into action as many of its recommendations as member states are willing to accept. It represents essentially the point of view of industry, so it perhaps underrates the value of work in fields such as nuclear safety, which may not interest companies but is of serious concern to governments. The JRC certainly did suffer some handicaps—as did many large national laboratories that had been set up around the same time, early in the nuclear age. But the situation within the JRC has changed substantially in recent years. Moreover, the JRC, which used to represent a very large fraction of Community R&D spending, now takes only about 13 percent. So let's keep it in proportion.
Q: Finally, concern about U.S. export controls is increasingly cited as an argument for self-sufficiency in certain core technologies. How strong a motive for collaboration in R&D is European anxiety about the strategic value of advanced technology?
This is very important indeed. I believe that the distinction between defense-relevant and non-defense-relevant science and technology is becoming more and more difficult to draw. So it is essential for Europeans to have some degree of independence in all of the basic technologies, to avoid being exposed to restrictions which can be dictated by defense problems. It's hardly surprising too that a group of nations which together represent the world's largest single market, composed of 325 million fairly wealthy people, should want to be competitive and independent in all of the basic technologies. It would be dangerous to take any other view. But I don't want to seem anti-American in any way. With an American wife and four American children, I cannot afford to be so….