The European Community is set to embark on an exciting yet risky program aimed at virtually changing Europe's entire R&D environment.
If the experiment succeeds, Europe could gain a competitive edge over Japan and the United States in high-tech markets. If it fails, the Old World risks wasting billions more on a hodgepodge of research that has so far yielded few market results. Indeed, an admission of failure would symbolize Europe's mounting frustration over the negligible commercial return on nearly $20 billion of public R&D spending since the mid-1980s and confirm to critics that its R&D policy wasn't meant to work.
The Fourth Framework Program for Research & Development, expected to be approved by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers early next year, is an ambitious attempt to correct the lackluster performance of EC-funded R&D. The program, drafted under the guidance of EC technology director Antonio Ruberti, will provide about 13.1 billion European Currency Units (ECU), or about $15.7 billion, from 1994 through 1998 across the wide sweep of physical sciences, technologies and social sciences.
Though the funding figure represents only 4 percent of the total R&D funded by the 12 individual governments, the framework program hopes to alter the structure, ambition and cost of EC R&D.
The most striking element in the new program is the number of funding proposals designed to bring the results of European R&D to the market. The policy clearly aims to refocus R&D funding on industrial goals, according to a German EC research official. For instance, if a research project doesn't concern itself with industrial competitiveness, it doesn't qualify, he said. Basic research will be left almost totally to the individual countries, except where important fields are being ignored, according to the official.
The EC has good reason to revamp its R&D policy today rather than tomorrow. The community's deficit in the trade of high-tech goods more than tripled since the mid-1980s to over $40 billion in 1992. European manufacturers have lost market share in everything from semiconductors and numerically controlled systems to software and biotechnology. And the recession isn't helping efforts to overcome their shortcomings, either.
On top of that, Eurocrats have made some bad technological choices. Perhaps the worst is their analog HDTV scheme, which has fallen victim to advances in digital technology in the U.S., resulting in billions of dollars squandered in research subsidies.
RESEARCH RESULTS FAULTED
To date, most EC programs and independent research programs receiving funding from the EC have not been overly successful, according to several independent studies conducted for the EC.
The EC's largest program--Esprit, for information technology--has earmarked $9.8 billion for 915 projects through 1994, although fewer than half of all projects have produced much value in strategic markets, leading project members say. Some exceptions: Esprit developed the microprocessor selected by Apple Computer for its Newton portable electronic notebook, and a prototype system for storing and retrieving images has been chosen by Philips Electronics NV for its interactive CD multimedia product.
Another program called Brite, for advanced materials and manufacturing technology, has made progress in some areas such as aluminum recycling, shoe production and plastic engine parts. But of its 1,130 projects funded to the tune of $3.2 billion through 1994, only one-third have shown any commercial value, according to an independent EC study.
Race, for communications technology, is a two-phase program to develop a high-capacity communications network by 1995. Though most of its technical goals have been achieved, heavy-handed regulation and lagging commercial investment could push the $2.8 billion project back another five years, EC officials say. …