EU too stingy with research funds to drive a technology-driven society
The EU is not spending enough money on research for European innovation to make an impact on economic growth, the "lifetime achievement" winner at the European Inventor of the Year 2007 awards, Marc Feldmann, says.
"If we want Europe to become a technology-driven society… then really the investment in research is insufficient," the British medical scientist told EUobserver in an interview after the award gala dinner in Munich last week.
Mr Feldmann, who works for the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London, picked up his gong for work relating to autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatism, which has led to new treatments helping millions of sufferers around the world.
Most of his studies were funded by the large UK charity sector, as the British government itself declined to give adequate funds in a scenario repeated every day in many of the EU's 27 member countries.
"The European Union believes that its future is tied to being more productive in research. However, it is very clear that in Europe we are spending only roughly half as much on research as in the US," the scientist said.
"Do we really expect to be succeeding in this particular challenge if we're not investing?" he explained. "Research is very expensive and it requires a lot of facilities and a lot of trained people, so it is impossible to do research without significant resources."
Mr Feldmann added that the competition for limited funding leads to well-established scientists grabbing the lion's share, while younger, potentially more creative people at the beginning of their careers, often do not get the chance to take their ideas further.
"Or they will go abroad to test them [their theories], which is what they are doing at the moment," he said, describing Europe's science-funding system as one big "paradox."
"The challenge for Europe is to somehow ratchet up contributions to research and make sure…that the inventors have the resources they need to make the contribution to Europe's welfare," Mr Feldmann said.
Collectively, the EU countries spent €200 billion on research and development in 2005, which represents just under 2 percent of Europe's GDP, according to Eurostat. Cyprus spends the least at 0.4 percent and Spain the most at 3.9 percent.
Under the so-called "Lisbon Agenda" agreement of 2000, EU members have pledged to spend at least 3 percent of GDP on research by 2010 with the European Commission also pushing the business sector to invest more.
The EU executive has boosted its research budget from €4 billion annually in the previous four years to €7.5 billion a year in the next seven years.
"There is an investment gap and I think it is very important that the EU recognises that the improvements that have been made are important steps on the way but they are not there yet," Mr Feldmann pointed out. "Catching up will require more resources."
In 2004, private companies financed 55 percent of total research expenditure in the current 27 EU member states. The corresponding share was 75 percent in the US and 66 percent in China.