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  • Cuts in European research aid must be resisted

If it were left to the European Parliament, there would, it appears, be no more need to fund international research cooperation with countries in the South. This would have a dramatic impact on collaborative projects between European researchers and scientists in such countries. It would seem to confirm the views of radical critics in poor countries that the European Union couldn’t care less about the ‘global knowledge divide'. And it would also mean a break with a previous tradition of progressive thinking in the Parliament on scientific cooperation.

SciDev.Net reported last week on the Parliament's decision that instead of allocating €600 million (US$528 million) for international cooperation, as had been proposed by the European Commission as part of the Sixth Framework Programme lasting from 2002 to 2006, only €400 million would be provided, and this would be made available under the general budget heading of 'international activities' in 'human resources and mobility' (see 'European Parliment warned over budget cuts').

The result of such a move, if it were to be eventually accepted by the Council of Ministers (despite opposition from the European Commission), would be that international research cooperation as such would no longer be a priority. Instead, 'international activities' in research would have to compete with other intra-European priorities. The programme would also be reduced to a simple fellowship programme.

The European research programme for international cooperation has been held in high respect by researchers both in the South and in Europe. Known recently under the acronym InCoDev (International Cooperation for Development), it has supported novel partnerships between scientists from poor and rich countries. As such, it has funded a significant amount of demand-led research, produced good quality results, and was not tied to national interests.

Given the successes of this programme, the European Parliament, spurred by the able leadership of Michel Rocard (as president of its committee of development and cooperation), had even suggested that its budget be increased. Indeed the last evaluation report of the international cooperation programme recommended increasing the share devoted to developing countries. This move had raised expectations in developing countries, while Member States such as France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom had each provided additional support to the Commission for activities carried out under the programme.

It is therefore somewhat paradoxical that the same Parliament is now attempting to kill the programme. The Commission has already indicated that it is reluctant to accept this decision. But it has been research commissioner Philippe Busquin who has taken the lead on defending the programme, as his colleague, development commissioner Poul Nielsen, does not appear to consider scientific and technological cooperation to be a priority.

Busquin, in contrast, argues that international research cooperation needs to be recognised as an identifiable priority andthat the Commission sticks to its original proposal.He therefore proposed a corresponding budget of €300 million for international cooperation. This is a step in the right direction, and the Commissioner should be complimented for his stand.

The question that remains, however, is whether even this is enough? €300 million sounds a lot of money, but it is relatively little compared to the total research budget for the Framework Programme — about 60 times that amount. It is also small when one realises that the money is to be divided between the ‘Newly Independent States’ of Central and Eastern Europe, non-EU countries bordering on the Mediterranean and the developing countries.

We still do not know how this money will be divided up. Will most of it go to Europe's closest Eastern and Southern neighbours? Will the European Development Fund be allowed to make extra allocations for capacity building in the developing countries?

Three things need to be done. Firstly, the full €600 million needs to be restored for a special budget for international cooperation in research. Secondly, the relation between research, training and capacity building needs to be strengthened. Thirdly, active policy dialogues need to be promoted with scientists and other partners in the South to guarantee that Southern research priorities are taken seriously in Brussels.

All of these factors are strong reasons for supporting Busquin's efforts to salvage what he can of a very promising programme. But all are also strong reasons for sending a wake-up call to member states of the European Union, as well as public interest groups in Europe and in the South. If this occasion passes without protest, it could take a decade or more before we are back where Michel Rocard wanted us to be.

© SciDev.Net 2001

The author has recently assumed a professorship in international cooperation at Maastricht University with an inaugural address To and Fro: international cooperation in research and research on international cooperation. He can be contacted at [email protected]

For more information on international cooperation in research see:
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