Public Service Review: European Science and Technology - Issue 5
Stimulate, synergise, incentivise
04 January 2010
Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy explores the importance of leading edge research in Belgium, and the country's efforts towards ERA integration
A high quality of life for 10,860,000 people living in a country of 30,528km2, with almost no exploitable raw materials, is an equation whose solution relies mainly on the implementation of leading scientific know-how and technology. Other elements are also involved in the innovation process – which is incontestably a determining lever in the country's socio-economic dynamism and the wellbeing of its population – but it is research that is the most powerful driving force.
Belgium is well aware that leading edge research represents a fundamental wealth. It is particularly conscious that a coherent mobilisation of the scientific and technological, human and material resources is essential for anyone wishing to actively invest in the construction of a knowledge-based economy. And owing to the country's modest size, cooperation, coordination and synergies are necessary to achieve this objective. From this point of view, partnership with other members of the European Union, and particularly within the framework of the European Research Area (ERA), is also a very important resource. The Belgian science policy authorities, especially at federal level, implement a large number of measures in line with ERA.
International collaboration is a basic ingredient in Belgian research. For instance, Belgium has been implementing an active policy for more than 50 years, concerning participation in major leading European research infrastructures, constituted in the form of intergovernmental organisations. The latter are essential for leading edge research and innovation, and Belgium alone would not be able to create or manage them. Scientists and top Belgian science policy officials have played a leading role in the constitution of organisations such as CERN, ESA, ESO and ESRF1, organisations of which Belgium is a founding member. In the domain of space research, the activities of the Belgian public authorities fall fully within the scope of an international framework, ESA to be specific. Moreover, the Belgian space policy is further supported by programmes led by European organisations such as Eumetsat, or through bilateral agreements with foreign space agencies. In terms of market oriented research, Belgian researchers are active in the 'Eureka' initiative at all levels. Approximately 60 projects involving more than 80 research teams are in progress for a total budget of nearly €50m.
R&D human capital is an effective resource for Belgium, which is unfortunately suffering from significant erosion owing to the 'brain drain' phenomenon. In 2002, Belgium set up a system called 'return mandates for researchers', with two objectives: to find a solution to this erosion; and to favour the circulation of Belgian researchers in Europe. The system thus contributes to reinforcing the R&D human potential acting in Europe. Since its inception, it has enabled over 100 highly qualified (post-doctoral) scientists to be reintegrated into Belgian research on a long-term basis. From the point of view of stimulating international mobility and attracting foreign researchers in Europe, Belgium also offers non-EU researchers post-doctoral grants, allowing them to work for a fixed period (up to 18 months) in a Belgian research unit.
As regards the sharing of human resources – here again in accordance with ERA objectives – the federal multi-annual research programmes are open to the participation of non-Belgian teams, up to 15% of the total amount of the project concerned. This measure has been in force since 2003. Furthermore, Belgium is involved in the 'ERA-net' scheme, whose aim is to defragment research efforts in Europe by reinforcing cooperations and collaborations. At federal level, Belgium is involved in nine 'ERA-net' initiatives related to domains such as biodiversity, environmental health, mitigating the effects of climate change or pollution in the marine environment. Belgium is implementing several multi-annual research programmes in these domains, thus illustrating its active search for synergies.
Two Belgian initiatives aimed at stimulating research deserve to be mentioned owing to their originality. The first one concerns tax relief in favour of all categories of those involved in research. As such, a company's profits may be protected up to a sum of €10,000 (indexed) per additional staff member allocated to R&D, the development of the company's technological potential or integrated quality management. Similarly, universities, research centres, institutes of higher education, scientific institutions, etc, benefit from a partial exoneration (75%) of the withholding tax on the professional income of researchers. The second initiative consists of the 'Interuniversity Attraction Poles' (IAP). This system, which has been in operation for nearly 23 years, is still relatively unique in Europe. The IAP has made it possible to reinforce high level scientific potential in Belgian universities by giving leading edge teams additional human and material means to reach a critical mass of approximately 6,500 researchers (500 of which are directly dependent on IAP credits). More than 2,000 publications are produced every year within this framework. The cooperation generated by the IAP consolidates the role of Belgian researchers in the networking of scientific research on a European level. And collaboration with European institutions is accelerating this integration. The sixth phase of the IAP (2007-2011) includes 324 teams, 74 of which are non-Belgian European teams.
Finally, Belgium has fully demonstrated its desire to be an active part of the information society by setting up the 'BELNET' network. It is a fast broadband network, providing advanced telematic services to 150 institutions (schools and colleges, research and scientific public service institutions, federal public services, international organisations), with a total of 340,000 end-users.
These various actions demonstrate the importance of leading edge research in the eyes of a country like Belgium, and its efforts to accelerate its integration into ERA.
1 CERN: European Organisation for Nuclear Research; ESA: European Space Agency; ESO: European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere; ESRF: European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
This article was written before the nomination of Herman Van Rompuy as President of the Council of the Union, so the article expresses only the views of the Belgian Prime Minister.