The European Commission's proposal of a "virtual NASA" to coordinate aeronautical research across Europe is a welcome move in a market where such research is vulnerable to local-market politics. Until recently, Euro-pean governments have proved tardy, however, in encouraging their aerospace industries to cooperate. But the question remains: will they be any better at pushing themselves towards cooperative European aerospace research - or its funding?
The EC proposal is not, of course, for a centralised research centre - and rightly so. It will be a difficult-enough task to get the major research programmes in different countries working together without trying to relocate the centres of research as well. If there are only ever 20 people at "EuroNASA" headquarters, then the other great fear associated with a new European initiative (that of bureaucracy expensively out of control) should also be contained. Even a small body will, however, need funding (and controls) if it is to be effective merely as a co-ordination unit.
The first real difficulty, though, will lie in persuading European governments and their major research establishments that by cooperation they can achieve far more, far more efficiently than by acting alone or, even worse, in competition. There is still competition within Europe over research in fundamental areas like civil aircraft wing design, even though there is no longer competition between European manufacturers. Far too few national groups have agreed so far to cede work in one area in exchange for the lead in another - but that is what they are all going to have to do if this concept is to succeed.
The other worry concerns the funding from the individual European nations, whose governments all have different views of and priorities in aerospace research. The German and French governments are strong supporters of research , while in the UK even the paltry £20 million of annual funding which its government invests in civil aerospace research is under threat. Even the most enthusiastic countries, however, are investing a tiny fraction of the sums invested by the US government in its aerospace industry's research. That has several major implications. With an imbalance in research funding, the Europeans cannot hope to compete long term with the Americans, and the great commercial strides of the last couple of decades in building up, for instance, Airbus Industrie's position, will not be able to be sustained. Just as importantly, an industry which cannot afford enough research to be a credible competitor is also one which cannot be taken seriously as a credible potential collaborator. While much has been made of building a strong, integrated European industry, many of its leaders are fearful of a "fortress Europe" mentality, and want to build their links with American and other industries.
There is little point in trying to assemble a common European approach to research in the absence of a common level of enthusiasm. Nobody is going to suggest that major parts of European research be placed in the hands of UK establishments if local funding for the research is not guaranteed.
The best solution would, of course, be for the European governments to pool their research funding under the aegis of the "EuroNASA", and distribute it on the basis of best and most efficient use. But without such a common approach (based, perhaps, on an agreed percentage of national GDP or other fair formula) European aerospace research will inevitably be tilted towards those countries with the most enthusiasm for it. So what is the danger in that?
There are many. Where research goes today, manufacturing tends to follow tomorrow. A couple of enthusiastic countries cannot on their own sustain the aerospace research requirements for the whole of what is increasingly an integrated, interdependent European aerospace industry. If the European governments cannot fund enough research, European companies may take their research outside Europe.
So launching a "EuroNASA" requires a lot more commitment from 15 governments and their hundreds of aerospace companies than the mere founding of a small Brussels office and paying a few salaries - but it is important that this first commitment be made.
Source: Flight International