A "Team Europe" approach to R&D would challenge the USA's patent domination


The long-term future of European aeronautics research and development (R&D) could be shaped, at least in concept, by the end of the year.


First, an intergovernmental conference to be held in Nice in December could unlock the possibility of Europe-wide patents - as opposed to individual patent rights being granted by each nation. A second catalyst that will also occur next month is the presentation of a report to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin by 14 aviation and aeronautics industry leaders. The report's purpose is to identify 20-year industry programme goals, and to outline how best to encourage transnational R&D co-operation in Europe as part of a so-called European Research Area (ERA) (Flight International, 17-23 October).

Busquin, a Belgian physicist who assumed the commissioner's role last year, wants to create a "Team Europe" approach to R&D that will challenge the USA's domination of patents as well as convince high-technology industries to focus on a future European economy forged by shared goals.

Busquin believes there is room for co-operation between Europe and others (such as Russia and the USA) in R&D related to environmental and safety issues, plus, in Russia's case, space. But he finds it "more difficult to envisage co-operation" in developing aeronautics products and, as "the most visible example", he cites the existing air transport competition between airframe manufacturers Airbus and Boeing.

R&D, Busquin says, is "a wheel of fortune" on which Europe's future economy, knowledge, society and quality of life all depend. "If the wheel doesn't turn, it's death," Busquin says. "Whoever stays put in one place dies in one place."

But simply getting the wheel to turn is not enough to develop the wide-ranging European R&D structure or policy that some believe is needed in aviation and aeronautics. Of particular concern to the community involved are long-standing questions about the future course of transnational defence R&D, and the separate issue of R&D funding via the European "framework" programmes. The current Fifth Framework launched in 1998, offered aeronautics R&D €700 million ($610 million) over four years. The Sixth Framework, for which first proposals will be made in January, begins in 2002.

In the case of defence R&D, there are complex and controversial issues which range from funding and partnerships, to national protection of "crown jewel" technology and gaps between countries' funding and capabilities - as well as national security and sovereignty. The latter two points, however, could be forced closer towards resolution by what is hoped will be explicit linkages between the EU and civil and military R&D as the sun sets on the Western European Union's (WEU's) defence arm this year. Then, as an industry association source describes it, begins "the clawing out of the WEU's entrails" such as R&D resources of the Western European Armaments Group.

"It's very much a long-haul subject," says another industry association source referring to a concrete EU policy on defence R&D. In addition to how to resolve the mismatch of EU countries and WEU members, differences must be dealt with between small and large players on the R&D front on the question of consensus and "everybody wins" situations versus "flexible geometry", meaning flexibility in pairing with selected partners on specific R&D projects. Expectations had been high in the aeronautics community that "there would be a big push" to move on these and related issues during the French Presidency of the EU, but so far those expectations have failed to materialise.

While smaller European players question even internal flexible geometry, some larger players contend that flexing partnership boundaries by investing and participating in R&D projects outside of Europe threatens European R&D prospects. Referring to the Joint Strike Fighter as an example, the president of France's Groupe Lagardère, Jean Luc Lagardère, warns: "If Europe buys a multi-purpose fighter in the USA, that will be the end of research" in Europe on such an aircraft.

The USA already has a competitive edge in defence R&D because of civil and military dual-use technology projects that receive US Government funding. For example, the US Department of Defense (DoD)'s fiscal year 2001 budget includes about $60 million for the continued funding of a specific dual-use technology pilot programme, which was set up in 1997 to develop partnerships with private industry. Funding ends in 2002, but DoD officials hope that the programme's impetus will lead to more co-operative private-public research projects as "an accepted way of doing business". Overall, the 2001 DoD budget allocates about $9 billion for science and technology research.

Back in Europe, present funding for European aeronautics R&D under the EU's Fifth Framework is getting mixed reviews from industry. One side claims that only one in three projects submitted for approval is actually obtaining Fifth Framework funding and adds that proposals rejected to date include two helicopters and two engines. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are being encouraged to submit proposals for much-needed funding, another industry association source says, "but when the SMEs get wind of the 1 in 3 success rate, they won't do it. That is a risk. It's getting a little worrying. "If the €700 million set aside for aeronautics under the Fifth Framework is not being fully spent, the source contends, "the budget for the Sixth Framework will be smaller".

Another industry source counters those suggestions, contending that success rates for aeronautics proposals are indeed higher than most other areas of the Fifth Framework, possibly due to a coherent approach at European level for their submission. Sources are reluctant to provide specific figures on Fifth Framework awards because of international sensitivities, but it is understood that the aeronautics budget spending is on target. About €230 million remains for its "last major call" due on 15 December.

One of Busquin's goals in calling on the aeronautics industry leaders to prepare a 20-year vision was to gear proposals for the Sixth Framework toward large technology platforms with long-term applications. One such project under way in the Fifth Framework is Airbus' 12-nation Technology Application to Near-term business Goals and Objectives of the aerospace industry (TANGO), which has received more than €40 million in EU funding. TANGO aims to improve aircraft structural efficiency, cut manufacturing costs and reduce operators' acquisition and operating costs.

While European technology initiatives such as this can fuel the 20-year future development of Europe's aeronautics industry, the introduction of European patenting is caught up in red tape. EU roadblocks such as language issues, security and sheer bureaucracy continue to dog its progress, according to Busquin. And as long as there is no Europe-wide patent, the region will continue to suffer from a licensing imbalance between the USA and Europe amounting to €10 trillion in the USA's favour, he says.

"It's a real problem that we don't have a European patent. Europe is first in the world for scientific publications but not for patents," Busquin says. "We need a unique European patent. Restructuring leads more and more to multinational companies which need transnational legal structures, for the company's organisation or for patent rights." Also, he says, SMEs face particular difficulties in obtaining patents because of the expense and the lack of options to have their prospective licences translated into multiple languages.

The first step planned at this time toward a European patent has to do with jurisprudence, however. The European Commission has proposed an amendment to the Treaty of Maastricht that would call on the European Court of Justice to rule in patent cases between states, a step that would begin to clear the way toward a European patent, which European officials want to see in place by the end of 2001.


"If the amendment can't be done, it may be more difficult," Busquin says of moving toward a European patent. "It's always the same in Europe," he adds. "The principle is good, but there are so many administrations and different ministers."

Progress has been made recently to solidify certain intra-European R&D relationships: between Europe and Russia, and, in a separate development, a proposed bilateral co-operation agreement between Portugal and Slovenia. But Busquin acknowledges that a crucial step toward building R&D relationships between member states and increasing societal interest in R&D as a key to future prosperity will hinge on improving "the R&D culture. This will probably be the most difficult and most long-term objective of the ERA", he adds.

The European government should not provide another layer of bureaucracy, Busquin notes, but it must provide a catalyst and launchpad for businesses to develop centres of excellence across Europe, exemplified by Airbus, and collective long-term aims to ensure Europe's economic strength.

"To have a European Research Area is not a dream; it's a necessity," Busquin emphasises. "And if this does not become a reality, it will become a nightmare."

Source: Flight International