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In step with Europe

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007

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Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, German Federal Minister of Education and Research Dr. Annette Schavan, and European Commissioner for Science and Research Jan Potocnik at the conference in New Delhi on February 7.-HANDOUT

Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, German Federal Minister of Education and Research Dr. Annette Schavan, and European Commissioner for Science and Research Jan Potocnik at the conference in New Delhi on February 7.-HANDOUT

The India-European Union Ministerial Science Conference has laid a solid road for more traffic in science and technology in both directions.

THE decision of Europe's science ministers to hold their first ever conference outside Europe in India, and not the U.S. or Japan or China or Brazil, is evidence of a paradigm shift in the European Union's relationship with the country in the field of science and technology (S&T). Science ministers (or high-ranking officials) of the 27 member-states met at the India-E.U. Ministerial Science Conference in New Delhi on February 7 and 8. It was co-chaired by Indian Minister for S&T and Earth Sciences Kabil Sibal, German Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan, and E.U. Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik. The aim was to identify ways to strengthen the scope and quality of scientific cooperation between the E.U. and India. Europe is in the process of consolidating its skill, resource and infrastructure base in S&T through fora such as the European Research Area (ERA) and the European Research Council (ERC).

The India-E.U. partnership in S&T was set in motion at their first summit in Lisbon in June 2000, which recommended an early conclusion of an S&T agreement. This was signed during the second summit in New Delhi in November 2001 and became effective from October 2002. The India-E.U. relations acquired a strategic perspective at the fifth summit at The Hague in November 2004. A Joint Action Plan was issued during the sixth summit in New Delhi in September 2005 to implement an India-E.U. strategic partnership. The plan stressed the importance of their cooperation in S&T and recognised the huge potential for collaborative research. Given the growing importance of S&T links, the Delegation of the European Commission (E.C.) in Delhi established an S&T wing in November 2005.

The seventh summit in Helsinki in October 2006 reiterated commitments to the partnership. Underlining the "critical role of S&T in striving towards knowledge-based economies and the mutual benefits of further strengthening the S&T cooperation", the summit called for a renewal of the India-E.U. S&T Agreement. The India-E.U. Ministerial Science Conference extended the framework for S&T cooperation by bringing the envisaged collaborative research programmes to an altogether new plane.

In the recent past cooperation between India and various E.U. member states in S&T has increased; India has S&T agreements with 23 of the 27 members. But there were significant developments during 2002-06 that point to the widening contours of S&T cooperation between India and the E.U. as a whole, and the growing interest in each other's S&T systems.

Following the Joint Action Plan, several initiatives were launched in the areas of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), energy, environment (particularly the India-E.U. Clean Development Mechanism Initiative), agriculture, marine products and food processing. It was during this period that an agreement was signed for India's participation in the satellite-based navigation system Galileo (the European equivalent of the United States' Global Positioning System, or GPS) and a project to link the research data networks ERNET and GEANT of India and Europe respectively was taken up. Most significantly, India was admitted as a full partner to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) nuclear fusion energy project owing to the support of the E.U.

On the research front, India has participated in as many as 80 projects valued at 240 million euros. Under the Sixth Framework Programme the Indian share amounted to 11 million euros. In fact, 2005-06 saw a ten-fold increase in the number of funded projects with Indian participation. In addition, 35 fellowships under the Marie Curie Mobility Programme were granted to Indian researchers. The Framework Programmes (for Research and Technological Development) are funding programmes created by the E.U. to support and encourage European research. The details of objectives and actions vary from one funding period to another. The Seventh Framework Programme (2007-13), has a budget of 54 billion euros (a 63 per cent increase over the previous plan), and increased international participation. The creation of "capacities" in the form of new research infrastructures is an important component.

Though the general perception is that the U.S. is the preferred destination for Indian researchers, new data suggest that research collaborations in Europe are increasing. The January 2007 bibliometric survey carried out by the Jlich Research Centre and sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Research shows that India's collaboration with German scientists exceeded its collaboration with any other country, except the U.S., in the following fields: biochemistry, chemistry, biology, engineering sciences, material sciences and physics. In the field of medicine, Indo-German publications ranked third after those produced with scientists in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

In a comparison of co-publications with E.U. countries as a whole, the numbers exceeded those with the U.S. in all but two fields: biochemistry and medicine. In physics, the percentage of India-E.U. publications is 23.4 per cent as against 10.4 percent of India-U.S. publications, in chemistry the respective percentages are 6.8 per cent and 3.7 per cent and in materials science 7.4 per cent and 4.3 per cent.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Germany, which assumed presidency of the E.U. in January this year, took the initiative to organising the India-E.U. Ministerial Science Conference. In fact, in April 2006 German Chancellor Angela Merkel mooted the idea of such a conference in the Indo-German Joint Statement issued with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Hanover. At a bilateral level, Germany has strengthened and expanded its S&T cooperation with India. In November 2006, Ernst-Ludwig Winnaker, the then president of the German Research Foundation DFG, visited India and inaugurated its office in Hyderabad. Germany also plans to open an Indo-German Centre for Science and Technology in India this year. The fact that a scientist leads Germany today - Merkel is an accomplished chemist - is surely significant.

In the run-up to the ministerial science meeting this February, the third meeting of the India-EC S&T Steering Committee in Brussels in November 2006 formulated the basic elements of the new framework under which the cooperation could be renewed and strengthened beyond 2006. It identified the priority research areas of mutual interest and potential collaboration. "So far, in the Framework Programme [individual] Indians were participating; now India will participate," pointed out T. Ramasami, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology. "We are moving from a transaction model of cooperation to a relationship model," he added, indicating the paradigm change that was taking place.

The areas in which Indian delegates on the steering committee evinced interest included next generation air transportation systems and related aeronautical technologies; advanced materials and alternative propulsion technologies for surface transport; photovoltaics, hydrogen and fuel cells; automation of canal distribution systems, development and management of aquifiers, ground water modelling, the impact of climate change on water resources and water security; systems biology, "open-source drug discovery programmes" and development of new strategies and tools for treating infectious diseases; network security, cyber security, cryptology, next generation networks and cognitive brain science; nanomaterials and industrial nanotechnology; and access to European research infrastructures in physical sciences, engineering sciences and medical sciences.

India also evinced great interest in the European Technology Platforms (ETPs) and their mode of functioning. The ETPs are essentially industry-driven and help bring all stakeholders, including Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and academics together to propose strategic research agendas. However, they do not have formal contractual links with the Commission. Each ETP sets up its own legal entity called a Joint Technology Initiative (JTI). It is the JTI that calls for research proposals and seeks funds from the Commission and other agencies. To date only the JTI for the Galileo project has been established. India's participation in Galileo has been granted in principle. However, issues of technology and other technicalities, including property rights, remain.

The Joint Statement signed by Ramasami and J. M. Silva Rodriguez, the E.C. Director-General for Research, agreed to co-invest financial and other resources on research proposals identified through harmonised "joint calls" by both parties. These would have a limited number of well-defined themes of shared priority and research excellence. One of the joint call areas identified was nanotechnology. The committee also noted that the GEANT-ERNET network connectivity had hit roadblocks owing to cost; currently the capacity is insufficient to meet the growing demand.

Among the 35 new European research infrastructures planned, India showed interest in the European X-Ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility Upgrade and the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR). Negotiations on participation in FAIR have already begun. One of the highlights of the conference was the joint declaration by the Ministry of S&T and the German Ministry of Education and Research expressing the common intent to participate in the construction and operation of FAIR (see box).

The conclusions and the recommendations of the conference included: new joint mechanisms for the selection of research areas and related issues opened up by the Seventh Framework Programme on the one hand and the 11th Five Year Plan on the other; an E.U.-India Strategic Workshop Series on key areas such as climate change, clean energy, combustion, systems biology with a focus on infectious diseases and drug development including pre-clinical and clinical trials; a balance of "bottom-up model" and carefully selected strategic areas; a combined effort to create joint advanced research infrastructures in both India and the E.U. and a flexible funding mechanism for the exchange of researchers.

The New Delhi Communique issued at the end of the conference underlined that cooperation should be based on the principles of symmetry, reciprocity and mutual benefit and, where appropriate, the co-investment of resources in joint action. "We are in it as equal partners with equal funding and equal IPR [Intellectual Property Rights]," Sibal said. According to Sibal, India has committed a total of $80 million (65 million euros) towards S&T cooperation of which 35 million euros is for the FAIR project. This also includes an annual 5 million euros for projects outside the Seventh Framework Programme.

"The event was truly historical," said Schavan. "A new solid wide road has been laid for more traffic in S&T in both directions."

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