Bracing Tour of China Leaves E.U. Science Chief Impressed

BEIJING—Visiting China for the first time last week, Europe's top research official, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, admitted that she was bowled over by how quickly the rising power is muscling up its R&D. "The pace here is just enormous," she told ScienceInsider. "They realize that research and innovation is really the key, it's at the heart of policy."

That's the sort of thinking that the European Union's commissioner for research, innovation and science has been promoting in Brussels, where she is seeking to reengineer the €54 billion E.U. Framework Programme for research. In meetings last week with science minister Wan Gang and Vice Minister of Science and Technology Cao Jianlin, Geoghegan-Quinn sought to deepen the European Union's ties with China in areas such as energy research and look for ways to involve more European scientists in Chinese R&D programs. She spoke with ScienceInsider at the end of a whirlwind week that included speeches here at Tsinghua University and at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, visits to R&D centers, and meetings with dozens of Chinese and European scientists.

Q: There's been a lot of debate recently about when China might surpass the United States in research output and research spending. Do you have a similar debate in Europe? Are you worried about falling behind China?

M.G.-Q.: I'm not sure worried is the word, but certainly we see China as a challenge. There is a lot of engagement on a bilateral level, but if we really want to work with them as we work with the United States, we need to engage as E.U.-China.

Q: Last March, China and the E.U. held their first joint meeting under the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy [PUNE] agreement. China's Atomic Energy Authority and the JRC [the European Union's Joint Research Centre] will collaborate on nuclear safety, partly in response to Fukushima. China's nuclear labs are largely off limits to foreigners—far more opaque than the U.S. national labs, for instance. Do you think that work on reactor safety will lead to more transparency in Chinese nuclear research?

M.G.-Q.: I think this is a start. From my discussions here, it's obvious they're interested in research in the whole nuclear safety area. PUNE did not happen as a result of Fukushima, but obviously what has happened in Fukushima has brought nuclear energy safety into focus. In Europe, we're now in the process of setting down the criteria together with the member states and the JRC for stress tests—safety tests—on nuclear installations in all member states. China is very interested in that. They feel a lot more cooperative work can be done with the JRC.

Q: U.S. companies are quite worried about protection of intellectual property in China, and how to strike a balance between accessing markets and transferring technology to Chinese partners. How do European firms feel about this?

M.G.-Q.: We had a working breakfast with a number of European companies. The tech transfer issue was raised by them. The companies said the law is good in relation to protection of intellectual property rights, but implementation is where the problem is. We raised this with [Chinese] authorities. We have started a dialogue.

Q: Do you have ideas for making it easier for Asian students and postdocs to come to Europe for training, or increasing opportunities for European scientists in China?

M.G.-Q.: We have a tremendous flow to Europe. I stressed here that the Framework Programme is open to the world. I told [Minister Wan Gang] that we want their research program to be open to Europeans. I think in fairness his response was positive. He understands the problems and difficulties that we have. Because he sees such benefit to Chinese researchers being involved in our Framework Programme, he wants to ensure that a continuation of that collaboration is not in any way put in question. Of course, it won't be. He understood the point that we really need to have the same level of openness and transparency for E.U .researchers, particularly young researchers, to apply to be participants in their programs.

Q: When China sets a goal, because of its top down system of government, it can actually get things done. [M.G.-Q laughs.] Are you jealous of China's ability to design and implement a science policy?

M.G.-Q.: I don't think we should be jealous of anyone. We have a standard of living that is widely envied. A collection of 27 individual member states brings a richness and diversity of culture. It's a testament to political innovation.

Q: We're pretty far from Brussels, so I thought it would be safe to ask this question: Given the breathtaking pace in China and India, isn't it time for the E.U. to stop spending the lion's share of its budget on agricultural subsidies, and focus much more heavily on research and innovation?

M.G.-Q.: I don't think it's an either-or. We have seen significant changes in relation to the CAP [the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy] over the years, and that will continue. I actually take a positive view in relation to all that. There is an enormous amount that agriculture and research and innovation can do together. If 20 years ago you said that in 2011 we'd be worried about food security—nobody would have accepted that. But climate change and other issues have ensured that we have arrived at that day.