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Alexander Hellemans


When Antonio Ruberti took over as the European Union's (EU's) com­missioner in charge of research in January 1993, he came with high hopes from Europe's scientists. Unlike his predecessor and fellow Italian, Filippo Pandolfi, Ruberti had broad experience in science, having been a profes­sor of systems engineering, rector of Rome's La Sapienza University, and Italy's science minister from 1987 to 1992. He also had bold plans for reshaping the EU's research pro­gram to make it more scientist-friendly, and to better coordinate EU research with na­tional research priorities. But Ruberti steps down on 25 January with only a fraction of his ambitious agenda accomplished. His term was cut short because the Socialist Party of Italy, of which he is a member, was ousted from power last year. He will be re­placed by Edith Cresson, France's former prime minister (see box).

Ruberti will be missed. Says Cambridge University pharmacologist Sir Arnold Bur­gen, "Ruberti brought a scientific outlook to DG XII [the EU's department of research] which wasn't there before. He is a scientist himself and understands how scientists think." Before Ruberti arrived at the Euro­pean Commission - the EU's executive arm - ­its science program was not exactly popular with scientists. He promised to make DG XII more responsive to scientists' needs and to curb its bureaucratic ways. Ruberti also called for better coordination between EU strategies and those of member countries.

To have completed such re­forms after just 2 years in office would have been tough, given the glacial pace of much of Eu­ropean politics. But Ruberti did make a considerable impact, par­ticularly in opening up the murky world of Brussels bureau­cracy. According to astronomer Jan Borgman, president of the new European Science and Technology Assembly (ESTA), an EU advisory panel set up by Ruberti, "he has steered several projects onto the right tracks. For example, he designed manuals and procedures ,for achieving higher stan­dards in peer review and for making the pro­cedures for peer review clearly understand­ able to the politicians."

Many scientists credit the creation of ESTA as a major contributor to this new perestroika in DG XII. "Through this assem­bly the voice of the scientist might be heard better," says Ilya Prigogine of the Free Uni­versity of Brussels. Its 100 members are nomi­nated by non-EU bodies such as the Euro­pean Science Foundation and the Associa­tion of All European Academies. Since its first meeting in September last year, ESTA has mostly been grappling with the latest EU science budget, but it has also cast a critical eye over the commission's methods of peer review for proposed projects. According to Prigo­gine, the next wad of EU re­search money, which will be shaped over the next few years, "will be the test. We will-see what the influence of ESTA on that program will be."

The EU's science budget comes in 4-year chunks called "Framework" programs; the fourth Framework, running from 1994 to 1998, was significantly shaped by Ruberti's influence. At $15.2 billion it is 50% larger than Framework three. And while the EU's traditional enthusiasms, such as infor­mation technology, energy, and biotechnol­ogy, still dominate the program, Ruberti cites significant changes under his stewardship, such as a new program of socioeconomic re­search. "We have added research in educa­tion and how we can improve it. We also have a research program in technology fore­casting ... comparable to the American Of­fice of Technology Assessment," says Ruberti. "I think the fourth Framework is Ruberti's personal achievement," says European Par­liament member Umberto Scapagnini of the University of Catania, Italy, who is president of the Parliamentary Commission for En­ergy, Research, and Technology.

One aim that eluded Ruberti during his time in Brussels was overcoming the frag­mented nature of European research. Ruberti is nonetheless determined that the process of research integration should go on: He is leav­ing behind detailed plans in a document drafted a few months ago, entitled "Achiev­ing Coordination Through Cooperation," which is now being scrutinized by members of ESTA. Borgman views it as Ruberti's legacy and, despite the inevitable national tensions it will arouse, Ruberti is optimistic it will be carried through. "Yesterday, before the [European] Parliament, Mrs. Cresson said clearly that she aims to continue this policy," he says. She will have a tough job in carrying on where Ruberti left off.