The Group on Earth Observation (GEO) was formed in response to calls for action by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and by the G8 (Group of Eight) leading industrialized countries. These high-level meetings recognized that international collaboration is essential for exploiting the growing potential of Earth observations to support decision making in an increasingly complex and environmentally stressed world.
Dr. Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research.
GEO is a voluntary partnership of governments and international organizations. It provides a framework within which these partners can develop new projects and coordinate their strategies and investments. As of November 2008, GEO’s members include 76 governments and the European Commission. In addition, 56 intergovernmental, international, and regional organizations with a mandate in Earth observation or related issues have been recognized as Participating Organizations.
GEO is constructing the Global Earth Observation System of Systems or GEOSS on the basis of a 10-Year Implementation Plan for the period 2005 to 2015. The Plan defines a vision statement for GEOSS, its purpose and scope, expected benefits, and the nine “Societal Benefit Areas” of disasters, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture and biodiversity.
Building GEOSS is a formidable task, however. GEO Secretariat Director José Achache told Earthzine that “GEO is not a program. GEO is a coordination mechanism to network all existing and future observing systems. At the time that GEO came into existence, the myriad Earth observation initiatives, programs and observing systems were not coordinated, so there was huge duplication, enormous waste, and a total absence of synergy.”
So how is GEOSS – now in its fourth year – coming along?
The European Commission, the executive branch of the 27 Member State European Union, is the largest governmental organization in the GEO, representing 490 million people and the world’s largest GDP. Its leadership is absolutely critical to the success of GEOSS.
Dr. Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General for research in the European Commission since 2004, also brings a wealth of experience and insight into the EC’s support for GEOSS.
Prior to joining the EC as representative of new member state Slovenia, he served as State Secretary for Science at the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport in Slovenia from 2000 to 2004 and Deputy Director of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts from 1999-2000. Trained as an engineer, he is an expert on quantitative methods in archaeology and remote sensing.
In this second interview (first interview) with Earthzine, he details Europe’s current research initiatives and how they support GEOSS.
Earthzine: As Deputy Director-General of Research, what are the most vital challenges that motivate you to lead Europe’s research programs?
Stančič: I believe that the most challenging concept which we have put at the heart of European research is what we call the European Research Area (ERA). The ERA, which has the ambition to achieve a world-class public research base, is a process that aims at creating the right conditions so that over time, from a combination of competition and co-operation, a pattern of world class specialised clusters emerge. I see these clusters as having recognised and recognisable excellence at the global level. However, and despite all the achievements of ERA, our public research base in Europe is still too fragmented. Many governments or national bodies fund the same type of research without knowing about each other. Many researchers and universities compete for funding, if they compete at all, in small and inefficient research systems. There is great potential for obtaining better scientific value for research money by introducing more openness, co-ordination and coherence in this confusing landscape. We need better value for money if research is to contribute efficiently to finding solutions for the major problems that affect not only Europe, but our globe, such as climate change and energy security. The European Research Area is the framework in which we can achieve this. In May 2008, the Competitiveness Council launched the so-called “Ljubljana process” – a process for moving the European Research Area forward:
• by developing a common vision on how we imagine the European Research Area should look like in, say, 20 years from now;
• by identifying and implementing initiatives and strategies to realize this vision; and
• by putting in place an effective governance process, based on a close partnership between the Member States and the Commission.
Earthzine: What are some examples of EU research for which you see the greatest potential for societal benefit?
• Energy sector: The future of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies in Europe is on its way. A public-private Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) will implement the EU target-oriented research and development to support the broad market introduction of these technologies. Founding members are the European Community and a non-profit association of European industry interests composed of a major share of Europe’s fuel cells and hydrogen companies of all sizes from micro to large multinationals. The Commission is expected to fund 470 M€ from the Seventh Framework Programme for a period of six years, which will be at least matched by industry contributions. The main goal of the JTI is to speed up the development of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies in Europe and enable their commercialization between 2010 and 2020. The partnership will implement an integrated and efficient programme of basic and applied research and technology development activities, demonstration and support actions focused on the most promising applications. The JTI will ensure coordination of activities at the European level in order to maximize synergies with Member States and regional programs.
• Environment sector: With environmental issues high on the international agenda, there are many questions that remain to be answered: what are the precise causes of climate change and how can we best tackle it? Is it possible to predict natural disasters? How do environmental factors like pollution affect human health? How can we better understand and limit our impact on biodiversity and the marine environment? How can we make land use more sustainable? The list goes on… The EU is working to give citizens answers to these questions by supporting research activities that provide real and practical solutions.
One example among many initiatives in the domain of environmental research is water research which is key to the future of the planet. At the beginning of FP7 a group of industry-led technology platforms was promoted, including the Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform (WSSTP). The European Commission has taken into account the research strategy proposed by the WSSTP in formulating the FP7 programs, and activities are now underway.
European water policies – and in particular the Water Framework Directive – are also an important factor in FP7 research, along with improving our understanding of the impact of global and climate change. Another significant feature of FP7 is the full integration of international cooperation actions into most of the research activities, rather than these actions being a ‘stand-alone’ pillar.
Information & Communication Technologies
A second prominent example, in the domain of environment research is in the domain of air quality. The EnVIE project aims at articulating knowledge from different disciplines, involving a wide range of stakeholders in contributing to a new EU policy on IAQ. It took an original approach – what one might term “the EnVIE concept” – which consisted in examining the relationship between sources of indoor air pollution and related health effects by taking those effects as a starting point and then working through the exposures to be able to identify the causes and sources. The policies identified are based on the precautionary principle – that is, a strategy of controlling potential problems at source and of controlling exposure through ventilation. EnVIE succeeded in bringing all relevant stakeholders together to exchange experience through conferences and workshops and to discuss the issue of indoor air quality and its health impact in relation to existing policies. The project showed that there is a need for harmonization of efforts, in particular concerning source control on all potential paths for indoor air pollution and concerning exposure assessment. It proposed improvements to existing policies regarding IAQ. It also suggested and contributed to a prospective green paper on IAQ policy for the EU: this major outcome should enable an objective dialogue among all relevant stakeholders, the European Parliament and the European Commission.
Earthzine: How do you balance the need to advance applied research with that of the potential for basic research?
|European Union 27 Member
Stančič: As you may know, we recently launched in Europe the ERC (European Research Council), which is focussed on supporting fundamental research.
• Firstly, the ERC funds research at the frontiers of knowledge realised by individual teams and on the basis of the excellence of research alone. For the first time we have acknowledged that Europe can add value also by the impact of pan-European competition and not just through transnational projects.
• Secondly, the ERC has independent scientific governance and soon, operational autonomy. This means the ERC’s Scientific Council – not the European Commission, or anyone else – is responsible for implementation of scientific strategy.
The response of the research community has been extremely enthusiastic. The level of applications to the first starting grant call was completely unprecedented. Moreover, the quality of the first ERC evaluations has been largely acknowledged by the scientific world. This has a lot to do with the fact that the very best scientists and scholars are participating on the peer review panels. It is expected that the ERC will provide not just excellent research results, but will affect many aspects of research, such as the general improvement in the quality of peer review, the creation of international benchmarks, and the development of better strategies to become global players.
Let’s remember once more that the ERC comes under the 7th European Community Research Programme, (FP7). On the applied side, I expect the ERC to generate a snowball effect. Let me recall this principle here:
• more competition will lead to better research,
• better research will lead to innovations,
• innovations will lead to more private investment in research,
• more investment will lead to better facilities, and
• better facilities will attract and retain better researchers.
European Union flag
Earthzine: Europeans are proactive in adapting practices to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Likewise, the EU has a very robust climate change research program. What is the public’s perspective with respect to these investments in research?
Stančič: Science, research and technology development play a vital role in combating climate change and offer a variety of options. In this context I should mention that the 7th Framework Programme of the European Community for research, technological development and demonstration activities (2007-20013), (FP7) is a powerful tool and key instrument to tackle this problem at European and global level. Within FP7 a number of research programs and priorities focus on different aspects of the climate problem, giving European and non European researchers a great opportunity to collaborate in a broad range of topics of direct interest to climate change and its impacts.
Climate related research priorities and key objectives in FP7:
• To develop good monitoring tools that will enable us to better detect changes in the earth system and provide quality data and information for scientists and policy makers.
From its very beginning, the European Commission and European governments and organisations have shown their strong commitment and have played a leadership role in the GEO endeavor. European Union Member States and partner countries associated with the framework program for research provide 27 of the current GEO membership of 74 countries plus the European Commission. European international organisations provide seven of the current 52 GEO participating organisations. European countries are also members of many of the remaining international organisations mentioned. Representatives of many of these partners participate in the GEO plenary meetings and the working groups that developed the GEOSS concept, framework and 10-year implementation plan. A concrete example of the proactive approach of the European Commission towards GEO is the support given to GEOSS through the 7th Framework Programme (EC FP7).
The EC FP7 decision makes an explicit reference to the GEOSS initiative: “contribute to the development and integration of observation systems for environmental and sustainability issues in the framework of GEOSS (to which the European initiative Global Monitoring for Environment and Security is complementary); interoperability between systems and optimisation of information for understanding, modelling and predicting environmental phenomena, for assessing, exploring and managing natural resources.“
The research activities relevant to GEO will be implemented through annual calls for proposals from 2007 until 2013 which is the duration of FP7. As indicated in the call for proposals the research topics will be dealt with through the projects in coordination with the relevant GEO tasks. Thus there should be a direct contribution of the projects to GEO and the projects should benefit from the knowledge and participants within the GEO tasks. The projects are open to all research organisations in the 27 European Union countries, plus the countries associated with the Framework Programme of Community Research. Third countries are also invited to participate in those projects, in particular because of the international dimension of the research activities to be carried out in the GEO context.
• To gain a better understanding of the enormously complex Earth system and to assess the impact of human induced activities
Although scientific understanding of climate change has advanced a lot over the past, we are far from fully understanding how the Earth system and its components are functioning. FP7 makes specific provision in order to support key research activities in the domain of climate. For example, the thermo-haline circulation of the ocean, important for our climate in Europe, needs further investigation, since a weakening or strengthening will alter the heat transport and effect weather patterns and climate over Europe. Stability of the continental ice sheets is an essential component regarding sea level rise and coastal defence.
Another key EC research activity supported through FP7 is dealing with CO2 uptake of the ocean and land ecosystems.
• To learn how to mitigate the potential negative impacts on our environment and climate, to adapt to changing circumstances.
We still need to advance basic understanding of how the Earth system is functioning, since this knowledge will enter into the integrated Earth system modelling tools. Integrated Earth system models should provide projections and scenarios of the state of our planet. The final goal is to develop a fully integrated system to be used as a policy decision support tool. This is a key research priority of FP7, a case for long term societal security and to ensure that policy interventions are effective and economically sound. Research priorities include adaptation measures to enhance the resilience of natural and man-made systems and sectors to counteract climate impact, crucial for economic competitiveness, social welfare and environmental sustainability in Europe.
• To design and implement measures to move towards low-carbon and resource-efficient economies
The role of industry and technology in this battle against climate change is self evident.
In FP7, several themes are identified as nano-sciences nano-technologies, materials and new production technologies; energy; transport; space have developed research agendas and cooperation. Furthermore, joint technology initiatives, or technological platforms, are enabling a dialogue with private-public sectors as well as providing key tools to develop strategic visions for research agendas for short, mid-term and long term perspectives.
The Adriatic Sea
In the area of transport, just let me mention, for the aeronautic sector, the Joint Technology Initiative – Clean Sky – with an EC contribution of 800 million euro over 7 years that should enable us to achieve the new generation of “green aircraft.”
In the energy sector, the Commission has stressed the need for the European Union to act now to deliver sustainable, secure and competitive energy.
The heads of state and government of the 27 Member States have committed themselves to a low-carbon energy future.–a future that reinforces Europe’s competitiveness, safeguards our environmental objectives and ensures our security of supply.
We must not forget the huge economic opportunity represented by Europe’s transition into a low-emissions economy. Europe’s leadership also means showing how the technology is here, and how we will need an effective and competitive industrial sector up to the challenge.
With this objective in mind, the commission adopted a major energy and climate change package this year, which sets out the goals and targets we want to achieve.
Furthermore, technology will play a central role in achieving the targets of the new energy policy for Europe. For this reason, the commission will annually invest up to 2013 in energy technology research and innovation. It should lower the costs of renewable energy, increase the efficient use of energy and ensure that European industry is at the global forefront.
The adoption of the European strategic energy technology plan will help to speed up innovation of energy technologies by pushing European industry to turn the threats of climate change and security of supply into opportunities to increase its competitiveness. Those are essential steps on the road to our ultimate goal: to reach a shared vision on reducing global emissions by at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. Nothing less will do if we are to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Earthzine: Through the framework programs, Europe is moving to integrate information systems and availability of data. What are the successes of this program and where will it be going in the future?
Stančič: There are several complementary programs managed by our DG INFSO that show a high relevance to GEO activities. Three of them in particular address to some extent the ICT and environment communities and deliver ICT tools, instruments, infrastructures and best practices that can be exploited with a view to building a modern GEO system of systems (GEOSS).
(1) The FP7 ICT theme aims to master and shape future developments of ICT through Community research. The theme notably includes the objective of developing the tools and systems that will enable a Single Information Space in Europe for the Environment (SISE). Such a collaborative information space on the Web will be based on a transparent and interoperable back-end system of systems allowing ad hoc, on demand service chaining and giving users the possibility of plugging in their own use cases and accessing environmental resources such as databases, computing facilities and user interfaces.
(2) The GEANT & e-Infrastructure programme – To support European e-Infrastructures and to make Europe attractive for the development of virtual research communities. This program is targeting the provision of robust and generic electronic service infrastructure for the European research community. Focus is on linking the ideas at the speed of light (GEANT), sharing the best resources (e-Science grid), accessing knowledge and scientific data, innovation of the scientific process by creating global virtual research communities and designing future facilities (novel e-Infrastructures).
(3) The ICT Policy Support Programme to stimulate the wider uptake and best use of ICT by citizens, governments and businesses. This programme provides a follow-up to several programs that are ending, including the eContentPlus programme which was aiming at making digital content in Europe, including geographic content, more accessible, usable and exploitable in a multilingual environment.
Earthzine: Are there important areas that the EU should be engaging in research that are not covered within the budget plans? Are there paths for expanded international cooperation?
Stančič: FP7 makes provision to support research infrastructure in Europe. Research infrastructures play an increasing role in the advancement of knowledge, technology and their exploitation. They need a broad range of expertise to be developed and should be used and exploited by a large community of scientists and industries on a European scale.
Cutting-edge research infrastructures need a broad range of expertise in order to develop. At the same time they have the ability to create rich research environments and attract researchers from different countries, regions and disciplines. Thousands of scientists and students from universities, research institutes or industries from Europe and abroad, benefit from research infrastructures. Research infrastructures can be seen as strategic centers of excellence for research and training as well as facilitators of public-private partnerships in research. The benefit of cross-disciplinary and institutional collaboration lies in the personal interactions of researchers coming from different countries, disciplines and work places. Since activities in these facilities lie at the frontiers of science, they stimulate the interest of young people and motivate them to embrace scientific careers.
The resources, however, needed for improving the fabric of research infrastructure in Europe goes far beyond the capacity of the EC Framework Programme. This will be probably one of the key domains in the future where Europe will have to better define its policy in terms of research investment. A few examples of research infrastructures include radiation sources, data banks in genomics and in social sciences, observatories for environmental sciences, systems of imaging, clean rooms for the development of new materials or nano-electronics, computing and communication based electronic infrastructures, and telescopes. These facilities, resources or services have the ability to bring together people and investment and to contribute to national, regional and European economic development. They are therefore important for research, education and innovation.
Industry uses research infrastructure facilities in collaboration with researchers. Their construction and maintenance create important supply and demand effects. Such innovation capacities can be seen through the public-private mobility of researchers and the new technologies applied in building world-level research installations or spin-off products and/or start-up companies. Research infrastructures clearly stimulate industrial impacts and play an outstanding role in building the interface between science and industry.
They also have socio-economic impacts, for example, where pan-European research infrastructures have their site, often “technology clusters” of associated industry can be found. Such strategic centers for transfer of knowledge offer either better possibilities for interdisciplinary research contacts or greater attraction to high-tech firms. As a result, different regions often compete to attract new installations and this can be an opportunity to also increase the public-private interaction in the funding of research activities.