08 July 2004 16:29 [Source: ICIS news]
Europe has put science, technology and research at the top of its agenda.
After years of falling behind its US and Asian competitors the European Commission (EC) is now championing a ‘joined up approach’ to the task of putting Europe at the forefront of global research and development (R&D) across a number of sectors.
Simply put, more efficient ways are being proposed for industry, academia, and a range of organisations to work together more effectively not only to improve R&D but also to ensure innovations are brought to market quickly.
This desire comes from the heart of the European Union (EU) which announced in 2002 that it wanted to increase investment in research from 1.9% to 3% of GDP (gross domestic product) by 2010. The Commission has proposed to increase the EU’s research funding to an average of Euro10bn ($12.3m) a year for the 7th Research Framework Programme (2006-10). This is double the funding of the current Framework programme. The beneficiaries of this investment will be across the board and cooperation between the disciplines is set to generate some new and potentially exciting alliances.
At the same time, EC Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin has pushed home the fact that European business, academia and institutions cannot continue to operate in isolation. They need to cooperate if Europe hopes to meet the challenges that growing population and diminishing natural resources presents.
Laying out the stark reality, Busquin said that while US plant biotech firms spend Euro650m a year on R&D, their EU counterparts invest only Euro400m. Last year the US government launched a National Plant Genome Initiative with a total budget of Euro1.1bn from 2003 to 2008. EU15 support is estimated to be around Euro 80m annually.
The vehicle the Commission has chosen to pull together the R&D effort is a series of platforms the purpose of which is to provide a ‘strategic research focus’. The European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry, a joint initiative between the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), bioindustries association EuropaBio and the Commission’s Research Directorate, was launched earlier this week.
The partnership between the three organisations has been described as ‘unique’ and this ‘multi-stakeholder forum’, is expected to enhance the private public partnerships.
Certainly the link between Cefic and EuropBio has been greeted with interest. For years the chemical sector has been trying to shake off the image of a ‘smoke stack’ industry. Mergers and acquisitions have seen companies move away from commodity chemicals to become involved in higher value added areas like specialty and fine chemicals. And now Cefic and EuropaBio are collaborating. This has to be seen as a natural progression for the chemical sector. That is not to say that commodities are not important, but with shrinking margins and continuing economic uncertainties the chemical industry has no choice but to collaborate and innovate.
The new platform incorporates three sub-platforms; industrial biotechnology, materials technology and reaction process design. In turn this pulls in many disciplines; chemistry, biotechnology, nanotechnology, biochemistry and molecular genetics.
The industry now has a golden opportunity to show its detractors that it can innovate and that it does indeed make a positive contribution to society. Industry must take the chance not only to change the way it interacts with other institutions but also take the opportunity to attract new blood, which can inject new ways of thinking and generate wider interest and excitement in the development of new molecules and processes.
It could be said that for some producers this whole initiative can be seen as ‘business as usual’. German chemicals and life science group Bayer has announced that it is investing Euro2.3bn in R&D this year, adding that it plans to maintain its high level of research spending, 85% of which will go to the HealthCare and CropScience subgroups. This is impressive. But again Busquin points out that the European chemical sector invests only 1.9% of sales on R&D, compared with the US which spends 2.5% and Japan with 3%.
Across the sector as a whole, more structure is needed in terms of R&D. And this technology platform must ensure that not only is there cross fertilisation between disciplines, but also that the resources of time and money are used wisely.
Does the chemical industry have a future? The answer must be yes. But just how bright that future is depends on how the sector chooses to make these new liaisons work.
By Muriel Cozier
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