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21.05.2010


Singular vision



Reforms that could harmonize and enhance European research deserve support.


If the plan set out on 11 May by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Europe’s


research commissioner, comes to fruition, the continent may finally


realize its long-standing goal of a single market for science and technology.


Her proposals aim to break down barriers to the transfer


of knowledge and researchers, as well as to reform regulations that


hamper high-tech businesses.


The plan has three key elements. It would create a single patent


system that would grant companies protection for their inventions


across all the European Union (EU) member states at once, removing


the need to file separate patents in multiple countries. It would also


set up an EU-wide pension scheme to make it easier for researchers to


move around the continent. At present, pensions are not transferable


from one member state to the next, which discourages movement.


Finally, it would increase public procurement: directing the money


that EU agencies spend on areas such as telecommunications, energyefficient


buildings and computer software towards EU businesses,


thereby spurring home-grown innovation rather than going after


the cheapest price abroad.


None of these ideas is new, although in the past they have struggled


to gain traction. The EU patent, for example, has previously


proved too controversial in too many countries to make much headway,


and the others have never had a sufficiently vigorous political


champion.


This time things may be different. Geoghegan-Quinn was an


experienced politician in her native Ireland before assuming her


current post, and she has quickly earned a reputation for being nononsense,


hard-driving and determined. And, for the first time, she


is pushing an integrated plan. Instead of treating research (primarily


in academic institutions) and innovation (primarily in the business


world) in a piecemeal fashion, as the commission has done in the


past, her plan treats them as an organic whole. The goal is to create


a smooth flow from research discoveries to products and services


on the market.


Geoghegan-Quinn says that the plan will refocus Europe’s research


efforts on a series of grand challenges facing the continent as a whole,


such as climate change and an ageing population. New partnerships


would bring together the EU, member states and public and private


researchers to work on specific aspects


of these grand challenges. For example,


for the ageing-population challenge,


these partnerships could work on tackling


chronic diseases or on developing


technologies to allow older people to


stay in their homes for longer. Existing


initiatives, such as Europe’s multibillion-


euro Framework programme for research, and the Joint Technology


Initiative’s public–private research partnerships, will also be


integrated with the plan to avoid overlap.


Although there are some potential pitfalls in the plan — the pursuit


of direct societal benefits and high-tech industrial growth cannot


be allowed to undermine basic research, for example — it is on the


right track. Geoghegan-Quinn’s vision will come under scrutiny this


autumn, when EU heads of state meet to discuss it in detail. The task


now is to sustain political momentum, and to ensure that the necessary


decisions are taken at that autumn summit. European research


minsters should explicitly give their endorsement for moving this


agenda forward when they next meet on 25 May.


Geoghegan-Quinn’s reforms are especially important given Europe’s


current financial crisis. Budgetary pain is looming for every one, so


the kind of integration and coherence that Geoghegan-Quinn has


outlined is essential for making the most effective use of the research


money that scientists do have.



“The goal is to create


a smooth flow from


research discoveries


to products and


services on the


market.”



268



EDITORIALS NATURE|Vol 465|20 May 2010



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