Europe is striving to become the world's leading knowledge-based economy but those in the corridors of power do not recognise the contribution chemistry can make. Sean Milmo reports.

Europe is striving to become the world’s leading knowledge-based economy but those in the corridors of power do not recognise the contribution chemistry can make. Sean Milmo reports.

Amid a certain amount of scepticism, the EU is striving to transform Europe into the world’s leading knowledge-based economy. 

A key feature of what is called the Lisbon agenda is a big increase in investment in research and innovation so that the EU can exploit more effectively its potentially powerful but splintered science base. 

Nonetheless the EU’s chemistry sector, embracing both academia and industry, is confident that as long as it is given a proper chance it can make a vital contribution to the achievement of the Lisbon objectives. 

The problem is while Europe is endeavouring to make the Lisbon initiative a success, the chemistry sector is having to fight to gain the recognition it deserves. There is still a lack of awareness in the corridors of power about how crucial it is to the future wealth and quality of life of Europe. 

The Lisbon strategy was adopted by the European council, representing all the EU governments, when it met in the Portuguese capital in 2000. The aim was not only to make the EU the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world within 10 years. It would also ensure that the EU would be ’capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion and respect for the environment’. 

Innovation would be the cornerstone of competitiveness. Europe would be a more attractive place to invest because of the creation of a ’productive environment where innovation capacity can grow and develop’. 

In a review of the agenda in 2004, a group of experts led by former Dutch prime minister Wim Kok recommended that since so little progress had been made in the first five years in meeting its objectives new priorities should be set. In particular, much more responsibility should be given to the EU’s 25 member states to carry out the necessary economic reforms. 

Early last year the European commission, the EU’s executive, proposed a new start to the Lisbon strategy with a focus on the two principal tasks of delivering stronger and lasting growth and more and better jobs. In order to give member states ’ownership’ of the reform process, they were asked to devise their own national action programmes. 

The commission reiterated the urgency of the internal challenges that Europe was facing. On the one hand the region’s ageing population and shrinking working-age population would lead to a dramatic drop in economic growth without a major increase in labour productivity. On the other hand the quickening pace of globalisation was in danger of undermining the region’s competitiveness unless Europe was able to introduce technological innovations as a result of higher R&D expenditure. 

A recent report by another group of experts chaired by the ex-premier of Finland Esko Aho warned that ’Europe and its citizens should realise that their way of life is under threat’. But it also stressed that ’the path to prosperity through research and innovation is open if larger scale action is taken now by [Europe’s] leaders before it is too late’. 

In a massive effort to boost research and innovation, the EU is aiming for a big increase in R&D expenditure across the union so that by 2010 it will be equivalent to three per cent of GDP, against 1.9 per cent in 2004. A lot of this rise is likely to have to come from industry whose contribution to the total EU spend on R&D has only been 55 per cent, lower than the share of its counterparts in the US and Japan. 

Along with companies in other European manufacturing sectors, chemical producers will be expected to enlarge their R&D budget at least in line with rises in their sales.  

Between 1996 and 2004 R&D expenditure by the EU chemical industry in fact fell as a proportion of sales from 2.4 per cent to 1.8 per cent. This decline reflected a general downturn in the ratio of R&D spend to sales in the chemical sector throughout the developed world. In the US, expenditure decreased from 2.6 per cent to 1.9 per cent of sales between the mid-1990s and 2004 while in Japan it went down from 3.6 per cent to 2.6 per cent.  

R&D expenditure varies widely between countries

In recent years R&D spending by large chemical companies has been stagnating. In 2004 the 80 leading companies in the global chemicals industry recorded an increase of only 0.4 per cent in R&D spending, one of the slowest growth rates among top companies in the major manufacturing groups worldwide, according to the latest EU industrial research investment scoreboard. 

However the biggest European chemical companies are now beginning to invest more in research. BASF is raising its R&D budget by eight per cent this year after a similar rise in 2005. DSM is planning to put up its R&D spending by an average 10-15 per cent annually over the next five years. 

The EU is hoping that a more dynamic and transparent research policy will attract greater participation by industry in R&D projects at the European level from 2007 to 2013. These will be based on the seventh framework programme (FP7) for EU-funded research schemes and a competitiveness and innovation framework programme. 

At its meeting in Brussels in December, the European council decided that total expenditure by the EU on R&D over that seven year period will be 75 per cent higher than it was in the previous seven years. This will mean that expenditure on FP7, which will account for the vast majority of the EU’s research budget, will rise to around €50 billion (?35 billion) over the seven years. 

This allocation, which still has to win the support of the European parliament, was lower than the 100 per cent rise that the Commission proposed. But it will, nonetheless, mean that the EU’s expenditure between 2007 and 2013 will be higher than the five per cent share of total R&D spending accounted for by the FP6 programme. 

Since more chemical companies are likely to take part in FP7 schemes which, due to the increased budget, will be more and bigger than before, the chemistry industry as a whole should be putting more money into EU research in the next seven years. With most FP7 projects, industry will be paying 50 per cent of the cost with the European Commission financing the other half. 

The selection of projects within FP7 and related research initiatives will be based on strategic research agendas (SRAs) which have been drawn up by industry-led technology platforms. For the chemicals sector the key platform is one for sustainable chemistry (SusChem), which is shared with the industrial biotechnology segment. SusChem is a multi-stakeholder organisation consisting of representatives from academia and large, small and medium-sized chemical companies. 

The idea is that many more of the FP7 schemes will be centred on applied research than those in the previous FP6 programme because industry will be given a much bigger role in the operation of projects.  

Also, through the competitiveness and innovation programme more should be done to include SMEs and small entrepreneurs in EU research by helping them to improve their access to markets, finance and support services. With FP7 schemes, the Commission is proposing to pay 75 per cent of the costs of SME participants. 

Although chemistry within FP7 has only one technology platform and even that is a chemistry/biotechnology partnership, chemistry could be a major source of assistance to many of the other technology platforms. These include hydrogen and fuel cells; nanomedicine and innovative medicine; water supply; textiles and clothing; industrial safety; and photovoltaic technologies. 

The difficulty is that politicians and officials at the EU and national levels, often reflecting the views of opinion formers and the general public, can tend to be biased against chemistry. As a result they underestimate the amount chemistry can do to help make Europe more competitive. 

’Chemistry has a low profile because the contribution it makes to advances in technologies is frequently hidden. As a scientific discipline it gets taken for granted,’ explains Rodney Townsend, science and technology director at the RSC and a member of SusChem’s management board.  

’When people look, for example, at the development of quantum computing modules they think about physics and information technology but not about the need for solid state chemistry. Similarly with pharmaceuticals, people think about animal testing, clinical trials, hospital medicine but not about chemical synthesis. Generally the link between chemistry and a lot of innovations is not being made clear enough.’ 

While the Lisbon agenda has been highlighting the need for more invention and innovation in Europe, chemistry is losing its academic status in some universities. Chemical departments are being closed or merged with other departments. 

The UK’s technology strategy board, which was set up by the Department of Trade and Industry in the autumn of 2004 to advise the government on business research and technology priorities, comprises specialists in physics, engineering, biology, electronics, telecommunications, automobiles and pharmaceuticals but no one from the chemistry sector. 

Chemistry will play a key role in the EU knowledge-based economy

© European community, 2006

In Germany, chemistry as an individual discipline did not figure at all in a short list of around 100 research proposals submitted by the country’s universities as part of an excellence initiative in R&D. From the short list, drawn up by the German research foundation (DFG) and German science council in January, graduate schools and research clusters in a number of universities will be selected for a share of €1.9 billion (?1.3 billion) of extra funding over five years with the objective of improving the quality of research in Germany. Within the proposed schemes chemistry has tended to be grouped with other disciplines in the broad categories of natural and life sciences. 

’In almost a third of the proposals chemistry had an input,’ says Wolfram Koch, executive director of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker ( GDCh; German chemical society ). ’Nonetheless the lack of recognition of chemistry is its biggest challenge at the moment. The first steps to gaining more visibility had to be taken by the chemistry community itself.’ 

Chemistry is in fact providing the key components of a variety of research schemes at both the European and national levels, particularly in fast growing technologies like nanotechnology. 

’Amidst all the attention being paid to nanotechnology at present, it is forgotten that 60-70 per cent of it involves chemistry,’ says Townsend.   

Another obstacle to chemistry gaining a more prominent role in the realisation of the Lisbon objectives is the fragmentation of R&D within Europe, compared with that in the US, Japan and in emerging economies like China.  

Without a central funding body like the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, chemistry in the EU is given different degrees of importance within its 25 member states. While annual R&D expenditure by the US chemical industry as a proportion of sales has been decreasing, allocations for academic R&D in chemistry in the country have been increased by 27 per cent in the four years to 2003 by the NSF, which is responsible for distributing federal research funds. 

’A more centralised approach [in Europe] could result in better coordination and thus increased resources due to less doubling of effort. This would lead to increased efficiency,’ says Alfred Oberholz, board member of Degussa responsible for R&D and chairman of SusChem. 

However, he points out that a system in which the vast majority of public funding is provided by national governments and agencies does not necessarily work against chemistry or other sectors. 

’National support is usually easier to receive and, furthermore, it is more prone to cover local issues which might not receive the required funding in a more centralised system,’ Oberholz explains. 

A lot of hopes are being pinned on SusChem to provide some coherence and consistency in the chemistry sector on the issue of R&D and research priorities. 

’For the first time ever, multiple stakeholders from all over Europe have agreed on a common vision and agenda for R&D in chemistry,’ says Oberholz. ’SusChem has already gathered broad support from industry and academia. However in this case more is better, so we are trying to get as much support as possible. Industry believes in SusChem and invests time and money into this [EU research] initiative.’ 

SusChem’s main task has been to pinpoint, in consultation with its main stakeholders in academia and industry, areas for FP7 projects in the three categories of industrial biotechnology, materials technology and reaction and process design.  

The technology platform has already drawn up an SRA which outlines the European research priorities as perceived by its stakeholders (see Chemistry World, February 2006, p52). SusChem is currently finalising an implementation plan for the SRA which should enable the commission to make a first call for proposals for FP7 projects in sustainable chemistry by the end of the year. 

However the activities of SusChem are not just confined to the operations of FP7. It also aims to influence research at the national level as well, particularly in promoting sustainable chemistry. 

Australia and the Lisbon agenda

The first cooperation agreement on science and technology that the European Union concluded with an industrialised country outside Europe was with Australia in July 1994. This treaty level agreement superseded the earlier 1986 cooperation arrangements on science and technology, and most importantly created an avenue for Australians to participate in the EU framework programmes.  

Under the fourth framework programme (FP4) (1994-1998) there were 34 cooperative science and technology projects between Australia and the EU, this increased to 55 projects under FP5 (1998-2002); and so far to over 70 projects under FP6 (2002-2006), including projects on biotechnology for health, water reclamation, grain legumes, and phosphorus and crop sustainability. Funding for Australian participation is found from the Australian side. 

Forum for European Australian Science and Technology (FEAST)

The Forum for European Australian Science and Technology cooperation, established in 2000, is considered the key vehicle in this cooperative process. There are numerous other researcher to researcher collaborations currently not recorded under the banner of the framework programmes. 

Australia supports the Lisbon agenda goals, which coincide closely with Australia’s own commitment to a dynamic knowledge-based economy. An economically dynamic and prosperous Europe also serves Australia’s and the global economy’s best interests.  

Both the EU and Australia have placed strong emphasis on enhanced international co-operation, and on achieving ’real’ results that create ’real jobs’. Economic growth and the creation of jobs in Europe will benefit all economies given the impact of globalisation and the interdependent nature of the international economy. 

Since 2001, Australia’s Backing Australia’s Ability initiatives have addressed the theme of ’Real results, real jobs’ through innovation. The initiatives constitute a 10-year A$8.3 billion (?3.4 billion) commitment over the period to 2011. Of this, A$92.7 million is focussed on international science linkages over a period of nine years from 2004. 

Australia’s national research priorities are focussed at the broadest level on environmental sustainability, promotion and maintenance of good health, frontier technologies for building and transforming Australian industries, and on safeguarding Australia. These themes match remarkably well with the nine themes identified by the EU in the transnational cooperation programme within FP7, namely: environment, health, nanotechnologies, ICT, biotechnology, materials and production technologies, and security and space. 

There is much promise for enhanced cooperation between Australia and the EU following from the Lisbon agenda and under FP7 (2007-2011) in our globalised world. 

Alan Jones is adjunct professor of innovation, management and performance management in the Division of Business, Law and Information Sciences, University of Canberra, Australia, and a visiting fellow, national graduate school of management, College of Business and Economics, Australian National University. 

’SusChem has a public relations job in getting across the message that chemistry is core to sustainability and that it is not part of the problem but is a key part of the solution to the problem,’ says Townsend. 

A structure has been established centred on a member states mirror group (MSMG) through which SusChem has a means of liaising with national governments and R&D agencies. ’Through the MSMG we will strive for alignment and reduce fragmentation in the national R&D programmes as well,’ says Oberholz. 

In fact it is already evident that this liaison system is having some success. Several EU countries are incorporating some of SusChem’s research priorities into their own research programmes, while some have even created their own sustainable chemistry technology platforms. 

More synchronisation is also being provided by a chemistry network of research councils within the European Research Area (ERA) programme. ERA aims to create a region of free movement of knowledge, researchers and technology - a sort of ’internal market’ in research. Chemistry is one of the few disciplines to have an ERA-NET, while there is also another network covering applied catalysis. 

’The ERA-NETs do a lot to counteract fragmentation, particularly since they help to harmonise the way research is funded across Europe,’ says Koch. 

Moves by the EU to establish a European Research Council (ERC) have been generally welcomed by the chemistry community on the grounds that it will help to avoid duplication of research schemes. The ERC last year established an autonomous scientific council of 22 leading scientists, including chemists, who will determine the council’s scientific strategy. One of its key tasks will be to ensure that its operations are conducted on the basis of scientific excellence. 

On the other hand there has been a lukewarm response in both academia and industry in chemistry to plans to set up a European Institute of Technology (EIT), which is being modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. The EIT will have a budget of €1-2 billion in the first four years which will be allocated by a board of top scientists and people from business to a range of interdisciplinary research and innovation activities.  

’Most major research organisations in Germany are very sceptical about the need for the EIT, especially as it could take money away from other more worthwhile schemes like the ERC,’ says Koch. 

The European commission is placing more importance on sustainable chemistry

© European community, 2006

Chemistry could be given a conspicuous position with the EIT. But that seems unlikely. Instead the major functions within the institute will be reserved for areas such as nanotechnology, innovative medicine, new energy sources and opto electronics. They will be heavily dependent on chemistry but probably that reliance, as in many other EU research initiatives, will not be widely appreciated. 

Sean Milmo is a freelance journalist

RSC, GDCh and RACI cooperate 

As part of the collaboration between the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the German chemical society (GDCh) and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI),  Chemistry World, Nachrichten aus der Chemie and Chemistry in Australia  are publishing a series of articles simultaneously in the three magazines. This article is the first in the series.