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Bringing down the borders to trans-national ICT research

National research programmes are crucial to the development of Europe’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector. However improved coordination across the disparate initiatives in different countries is needed if Europe is to realise its full research potential. Or so believe researchers in the IST project CISTRANA.

While Europe has a remarkably high reputation in ICT research, fragmentation of effort, limited cooperation between key players, and lack of information exchange about activities in other countries can lead to loss of efficiency. CISTRANA aims to overcome these barriers and improve the impact of research and development effort in Europe. The upshot, say the CISTRANA partners, will be increased European competitiveness on a global scale.

“The idea is to support coordination in ICT R&D by developing a map of the national research landscape in the area of ICTs, and establishing a portal with comparable information on national ICT R&D policies and programmes across Europe,” says Edina Németh, the CISTRANA project’s spokesperson at NKTH in Hungary.

In addition the project will, she says, identify ICT research topics and strategic themes where trans-national cooperation is essential, aiming to establish sustainable mechanisms for building coordination initiatives between different Member States. Specifically, such cooperation would, she says, enable the best brains in Europe to come together and pool efforts in strategic fields, resulting in research that is more efficient, costs less and is better overall.

“In our initial survey most countries had already indicated that their programmes are open to trans-national cooperation. However, at that time most were open in principle but not in practice,” Németh says. “Often we found no real incentive to cooperate, no motivation to pool resources and little sense of strategic collaboration.”

The differing structures and systems employed across the countries to fund research pose yet another challenge, making programmes difficult to compare and combine approaches.

“The barriers to trans-national cooperation are a big problem,” says Gabriele Kratz, a researcher at Germany’s DLR institute who surveyed research programmes in several countries. “We see CISTRANA as stimulation for national governments to think over these barriers and to open up to the idea of trans-national research.”

However research programmes around Europe do not fit neatly into a single model. The classic approach of open public calls for proposals, based on which research funding is granted, is not necessarily the norm in all countries. Instead, some countries do not provide direct public funding, but rather give money to institutes which then organise competitions in which researchers vie for funding.

Other countries do not have national funding programmes. Instead research programmes are funded at a regional level, while elsewhere, the funding provided by regions is commensurate to that provided by the state. And political changes can add to this complexity.

But the differences between countries in the approach to funding are not the only factors impeding greater collaboration, notes Németh. “Cross-border research initiatives need to overcome complex legal and financial barriers that may appear to outweigh the benefits,” she says. “What we are trying to do is show that the opposite is true by highlighting the real needs and rationales for trans-national research programmes in particular ICT fields.”

To this end, CISTRANA has set up an online IST research portal that provides information on research activities in different countries, giving policy-makers greater access to comparative data, which can then be used to explore the potential for complimentary actions. The project has also organised workshops to bring together national IT directors, “to encourage exchange of ideas” on collaboration.

There is certainly the scope for greater collaboration. According to the CISTRANA preliminary study, many European countries focus their research spending on a few select ICT fields, particularly telecommunications, embedded systems, micro and nanotechnologies, and optoelectronics. Healthcare is the main application domain. These parallel programmes can often create an overlap in research, one that could be diminished, the CISTRANA partners believe, through greater cooperation.

And yet coordination between the various EU administrations is demonstrably on the rise. Member States have already established a comprehensive framework to address greater coordination at both policy and programme level. In addition the European Commission has, in close consultation with stakeholders, funded 25 projects looking at key ICT themes, in order to plan for the future and build a common research framework in these key areas across Europe.

Looking further ahead, coordination has become an integral element within the thematic activities for the coming Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the Commission’s proposed next framework programme for research. This integration underlines the significance policy-makers attach to greater coordination.

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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