09 Dec 2008   |   News

National preferences entangle launch of European research infrastructures

Ten new projects European research infrastructures were announced this week. But how many will get off the ground?

View on the top of the storage ring with the experimental hall and the ESRF central building. (Courtesy: P.Ginter/ESRF)

In real estate, so the saying goes, three things matter: location, location, location.  It appeared very much the same applies to research policy during the 5th European Conference on Research Infrastructure held on 9 December in Versailles.

The conference was run by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure (ESFRI), an organisation set up by the European Commission to select major new research infrastructure projects, such as synchrotrons, data banks or observatories, from amongst the proposals of member states.

The ESFRI has a brief to assess these on purely objective, technical and scientific grounds to avoid redundancy, to pool resources, and to build the European Research Area. It selected 34 out of 240 proposals in 2006, and announced a further ten new projects, mainly in environmental sciences and life sciences, at the meeting in Versailles.

But even though the EFRI’s selection process is objective, the final go or no go for these projects is still a (highly) political decision.

The EU has started to apply excellence criteria – rather than politically correct redistribution processes – to its research policy as evidenced by the European Research Council’s grants mechanism.

To the victor the spoils

But making the same kind of shift is tougher with research infrastructures. That is because such projects have a profound local economic impact, be it in terms of procurements for neighbourhood companies, various taxes collected from high-skill workers, or start-ups that may spin out of prominent research facilities.

There is no doubt the selected infrastructures have triggered all kinds of political lobbying from local and national governments. And the main result for the moment is that hardly any of the first 34 selected in 2006 are under construction.

According to Carlo Rizzuto, chair of the ESFRI, “Six of the projects are now financed with agreements almost in place, and 11 are in advanced preparation for construction, but with funding and agreements not yet in place.”

As ever, the devil lies in the detail. The six projects that are moving forward are all upgrades or extensions of existing facilities, such as the European neutron spectroscopy facility and the European synchrotron radiation facility in Grenoble, or the hard X-ray free electron facility in Hamburg.

Because these are building on existing sites, there is no issue about the location, as is the case for entirely new facilities.

And in the case of the only new facility selected by the ESFRI to break ground, the Jules Horowitz experimental reactor in Cadarache, France, the European dimension is more symbolic than real. This €500 million project to develop new nuclear fuels and radiation techniques is financed half by the French Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique and 30 per cent by electricity generator EDF and nuclear reactor maker Areva. And while some of the remaining 20 per cent comes from European partners Belgium, Holland, Finland and the Czech Republic, Japan and India are making a contribution also.

In the case of another project that has broken ground, the new accelerator for antiproton and ion research to be opened in 2016 in the GSI Laboratory in Darmstadt, the European dimension is even harder do detect. This €1.2 billion facility is funded largely by Germany, with Russia putting in Euro 178 million, India €36 million and China €12 million. France is contributing Euro 30 million and the UK just €6 million.

Other projects selected by the ESFRI may prove more to be more pan-European, rather than national projects with some international participation. But building this infrastructure will be costly and in the current economic environment it is far from clear that governments are willing to spend the extra money needed.

Looking for billions

According to Carlo Rizzuto the total investment for the 44 selected infrastructures is around €20 billion. Part of that could come from 7th Framework Programme of the EU. Some structural funds may be also redeployed. But according to Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik’s address to the ECRI conference, €17 billion will have to be found from national budgets.

The wave of economic stimulus plans that is washing over Europe could mean this money is not impossible to find. As French research minister Valerie Pecresse underlined during the ECRI conference, research infrastructures are important economic assets.

But according to Dany Vandromme, Head of the French Directorate of Research and Innovation, even though such capital investments may be favoured by the current climate, “The problem remains the long term commitment to fund the operational cost of these new infrastructures.”

For every €10 billion of capital investment, the running costs can stretch to  €1 billion a year. And it could take decades before the investment pays off in innovation and new technologies.

As a result, the issue of the location of these infrastructure projects is high on every government agendas. During the ECRI conference, the Czech Minister of Research, Vlastimil Ruzicka, suggested that new members states should received a share above their individual financial commitments to these new infrastructures.

Because the economic returns are so significant, every project that remains to be started is entangled in bargaining among member states. For example, Sweden, Spain and Hungary are competing to attract the European Spallation Source, while France, Romania and the Czech Republic are vying to build the Extreme Light Intensity short pulse laser.

At some point these disputes will be resolved. But they are delaying the necessary investment. Under the French presidency of the EU, Pecresse has obtained a consensus on a new European legal status under which the new infrastructure will operate. But the main advantage of this, a full VAT exemption, has been contested by the UK and Germany, which are demanding an endorsement from Ecofin, the Economic and Financial Affairs Council, for such an exemption. And at Ecofin, a unanimous vote is needed to approve the move.

Under German law research infrastructure projects are already exempt from VAT, according to one German delegate at the ECRI conference. If so, why would Germany deny its partners the same advantage? Unfortunately, German research minister Annette Schavan, who was supposed to be a speaker in Versailles, was absent and therefore unable to answer this burning question.

In his address to the conference Potočnik said that developing world class infrastructures is an essential part of building the European Research Area, and must be one of the priorities of the EU and national recovery plans.

“To get these infrastructures operational quickly, I hope that Member States will also avoid any further delays in adopting the proposal for a European legal framework for European research infrastructures. This legal status, tailor-made for international cooperation on major projects, will reduce the administrative burdens and time-wasting involved in negotiating VAT status, excise rules and public procurement on a case-by-case basis. We have no time to lose in developing smart investments in research.

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