European plans for a five-year research and development programme for the information society have reached a critical stage. While the European Commission finalises its plans for the Information Society Technologies (IST) scheme, the European Parliament is haggling with member states over the budget.
When the current R&D framework programme finishes this year, with it go the distinctions between the three main areas of work - computing (Esprit), telecomms (ACTS) and Telematics.
A senior Commission source said: "The convergence of the IT, telecomms and audiovisual sectors was obviously fundamental, but just as important was the need for managerial efficiency and better technology transfer."
But before the EC can add substance to its new, market-friendly rhetoric, the crucial question of the fifth framework budget must be settled to avoid the delays that have dogged transitions between previous R&D programmes.
In February, EU research ministers agreed EC plans to restructure the programme.
But no such agreement was reached on the EC's proposed Ecu16.3 billion budget, of which Ecu3.9 billion, or 24 per cent, was allocated for IST. The ministers settled for a more modest Ecu14 billion ecu, with Ecu3.4 billion for IST.
The ministers' common position now goes to the Parliament for its second reading. Last week, the research commissioner Edith Cresson urged the parliament to reject the Ecu14 billion package when it votes in June.
The ministers' budget represented a considerable reduction in real terms on the fourth framework's Ecu13.2 billion spend. This would be the first cut in R&D spending in EU history, Cresson said.
If the Parliament takes the Commissioner's advice a conciliation committee of representatives from both sides will meet to hammer out a compromise.
This would not take place until September, which would push the final decision on the budget dangerously close to the end of the present programme.
"A figure of about Ecu800 million will probably be released to allow us to start on time," said an EC source. "We have always said December 1998 is our goal, but if it turns out to be January or February 1999 that is not so bad for continuity."
With these doubts over funding it would be understandable if EC R&D managers lacked motivation, but Thierry Van der Pyl, head of high performance computing and networking (HPCN), said: "Everybody agreed it was necessary to break the barriers between the programmes. In industry there are now no boundaries between IT and telecomms."
Research on HPCN has traditionally received a healthy slice of EU funding, and this looks set to continue in the IST programme, with particular focus on high speed networks.
Van der Pyl said: "We have linked all the national research networks to a speed of 34Mbps, but it is already quite heavily loaded. A migration to 155 Mbps is in the pipeline. In the fifth framework we want to create an architecture that is scaleable in bandwidth, so it is not really an upgrade," he said.
Another area of interest for the HPCN unit is the development of next generation Internet protocols. Last year the EC voiced fears that Europe was falling behind in the race for Internet II.
But now Van der Pyl is confident Europe can compete. He said: "I think we have made major progress. There is an explicit request for action in the IST programme, so we have the political agreement to do it. The problem before was not one of technology, because there is no shortage of good people. But with the change in the political situation, and the telecomms world, there is much more cooperation between all parties. This is what happens in the US, and it is what we need," he said.
For Van der Pyl, Europe's future success in the global marketplace depends on high quality information networks. He said: "You cannot consider computing as a standalone activity. This is true in the office, in the factory, in the lab and at home. You must think about concurrent networks."
The importance of networks can best be seen in the field of long term research. The ability to communicate, exchange expertise and find partners is vital in the early phases of ambitious R&D.
Simon Bensasson, the EC's long term research chief, said: "We have 18 different networks operational in blue sky R&D. These are very much human networks that any lab active in a given area can participate in. That way no researcher or expert is lost or ignored."
The EC provides funding for the start-up costs of the networks, and then gradually pulls back once industry becomes more involved. The Commission wants to promote the use of these research networks in the IST programme, particularly to foster closer ties between industry and academia.
"In the US it is common for academic labs to solve problems brought to them by industry on a contractual basis. The universities own the intellectual property rights, because industry is happy to fund the research knowing that it can later buy the licences of promising projects," Bensasson said.
The EC is currently working on similar projects in Europe, but Bensasson admits there are few places in Europe capable of offering the same combination of expertise and critical mass.
Peter Cochrane, head of British Telecom's advanced technology lab, said: "A lot of what is happening here in Europe is 10 years behind what is happening in the States. I am much more likely to go to MIT (Massachussetts Institute of Technology) than anywhere in Europe."
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the commission's long term R&D unit is finding a definition of long term research that will satisfy everyone.
The EC's answer has been to divide its R&D into three distinct areas - reactive, open and proactive. The most straightforward will be reactive R&D, which will respond to specific needs, and the clearly defined call and tender approach will continue to be used.
But the approach for open research will represent a break with the past. Bensasson said: "Open research will be open to everything. There will be no official call deadlines set, and if we know what we want to do it is probably too late. If we think an idea is promising we will give Ecu50,000- 100,000 for one year to explore it further. All we ask is that there is a definable goal."
One project that has recently moved on to a second phase looked at the possibility of injecting microchips into heart tissue as a quick fix to stop heart attacks.
Bensasson said that this potentially ground breaking technique is a good example of the innovative R&D that would be suited to the open research approach.
"We have actually tuned the criteria so that almost 50 per cent will not go on to the second phase. We want this to be risky," he said.
The third R&D category, proactive research, will focus on selected areas of interest. One of these is what the EC calls I3, or Intelligent Information Interfaces. "All the industrial advisory committees said the same thing, they wanted friendlier interfaces," Bensasson said.
Virtual space and reality are just two of the technologies that will be explored under the I3 umbrella. Other possible projects are expected to be on intuitive displays and user recognition systems.
The EC is also looking at quantum computation. "Some people have suggested that we do something in IST, and although it is complex and very long term, the question is can we afford not to be involved," Bensasson said.
BT's Cochrane has been vocal in his support for research into quantum computation. He said it was now or never for Europe if it wanted to get a lead in quantum technologies.
Industry reaction to the unified IST programme has been predominantly positive. Bruno Lamborghini, chairman of the European IT manufacturers' lobby Eurobit and Olivetti Lexikon, said: "I have criticised the EC in the past for not listening to industry. I have never said the idea is to solve our problems for us, but if you remain too far away from the market you never see the benefits of the research."
Lamborghini welcomes the Commission's new approach, but other industry players are less enchanted by the new tune, still mindful of past mistakes.
Ingfried Becker, a senior executive at IBM and head of Eurobit's industrial policy group, said: "We were involved in a project a few years ago that was completely lacking in direction and management. It went on for eight years, and the whole thing was a big work programme for consultants and academics," he said.
Another senior industry source said: "Every time we have got involved in the past it has been a terrible waste of time and money."
One frequent criticism was of the time consuming call and tender process, which placed such burdens on IBM that Becker said "I don't know how SMEs and start-ups coped at all."
This particular criticism is one the EC is sensitive to, and steps have been made to cut some of the red tape.
Bensasson said: "We now operate a two-step process for long term research projects. First we ask for a six-page synopsis of the idea, and we aim to give them a response within two months. If we like the idea we invite them to make a more detailed application."
One EC source said that efforts were made to speed the call and tender process up two years ago, but squabbles between the EU institutions hampered progress.
He said: "We did get the process down to under a month, but Commissioners asked if we had the competence to take these decisions, and the Parliament said we should make allowances for postal services. That is the essence of the problem, efficiency and accountability are sometimes incompatible," he said.
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