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A welcome decision by the European Union to open its Framework research programme to developing countries must not become an opportunity to create a new cycle of dependency by the South on the North.

During this week's international AIDS meeting in Barcelona, officials from the European Commission were promoting a major new programme of support for testing new drugs and vaccines in developing countries. The purpose of the programme is to set up what is described as a 'clinical trials platform', intended to promote research into treatments for some of the principle diseases currently facing developing nations, in particular HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The programme is part of the new Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), that was formally approved last month, after almost two years of negotiation by the Council of Ministers, that represent the 15 member states of the European Union. FP6 is the latest version of the multi-year Framework Programme launched in the early 1980s, with the initial goal of bringing sufficient coherence into Europe's own research efforts to compete more effectively on the economic and technological front with the United States. FP6 will cover the period 2002-06, with a total budget of €17.5 billion (US$17.3 billion).

A novel element of FP6 is that, for the first time, all individual research projects will be open to participation by researchers from developing countries (with a few politically unacceptable exceptions). As a senior official from the Commission explained last week, this provides a significant opportunity for such researchers to engage in collaborative research with European scientists in areas ranging from human health to transportation (see Europe seeks Third World research partners); one of the key characteristics of succeeding Framework Programmes is that they focus on research that is related to social and economic needs, with little funding provided for basic research.

Much of this research will be directly related to the goals of sustainable development, particularly following a broader political commitment to this strategy made by the EU member states at a meeting held in the Dutch city of Groningen. The opportunities for collaborative research in this area will be laid out by the commission during a two-day meeting being planned as part of the Science Forum that will take place on the margins of the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg on 2 and 3 September.

There is much to be welcomed in the Commission's new initiative. Previous frameworks have played an important role in helping to raise the political priority given to research within Europe itself; one of the conditions for membership being placed on countries in Central and Eastern Europe is that they significantly increase their research and development funding. In a similar fashion, FP6 is likely to enhance the overall level of support for research within the foreign aid budgets of EU member states, an increasing proportion of which is now spent through Brussels.

Furthermore, the strict and relatively transparent procedures followed by the commission in evaluating all funding requests for Framework projects will help ensure that the twin criteria of scientific quality and social and economic relevance are properly observed.

Fears that observance of these criteria were being compromised by political influences were one of the reasons for terminating the INCO-DEV programme, the previous mechanism for funding research relevant to developing countries. Indeed at one stage, such was the Commission's concern over member states applying excessive pressure on the distribution of INCO-DEV funds that it had proposed all such funding should be absorbed into the main Framework budget.

It was only after protests from several countries — in particular France — that this situation was modified, and it was agreed that a figure of €300 million should be earmarked for international cooperation.

The political threats, however, remain. At the end of the day, the decision to include developing countries within the broader strategy of the Framework Programme is not motivated by altruism, but by Europe's self-interest. The support it provides for research outside Europe is explicitly seen as an arm of EU foreign policy. This means that research funding will not be distributed according to either quality or need alone, but also according to foreign policy goals.

The commission itself points out in one background document, for example, that at present only one per cent of its spending on research takes place outside Europe, and compares this to the figure of three per cent spent by the United States. Yet a significant proportion of the US foreign aid budget — even in science — is spent on helping to secure political goals in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Russia and India.

Furthermore, one explicit reason put forward by Brussels for welcoming developing nations into what is now described as the European Research Area (ERA) is to increase the relative attractiveness of European universities as a training ground for foreign postgraduate research students. Here the danger is that, while pursuing the legitimate goal of encouraging such students to pursue their training in Europe rather than the United States, the Commission could end up exacerbating the less desirable aspects of the brain drain from which many developing countries continue to suffer.

These dangers place a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Commission officials to ensure that the funds they have available are genuinely spent in a way that meets the interests of developing countries.

But is also means that there is a responsibility on the developing countries themselves to exploit the opportunities opened up by the new channel of funding, for example, by identifying partners in both the developing and developed world with whom joint research projects can be usefully launched, rather than letting the research agenda be determined from the North.

Such issues will be high on the agenda of the September meeting in Johannesburg (as well as a previous meeting in Cape Town at the end of this month between leading African and European research officials). Europe has much to make up for over its previous activities in the developing world, in Africa in general.

It could be disastrous if new attempts to build bridges in science and technology between North and South did little more than recreate traditional patterns of colonialist dependency, the danger at the heart of current trends towards globalisation. Both sides share a common responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.

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