Rethink of EU-Japan R&D collaboration

The European Commission (EC) is pushing for collaborative research in the ICT field with Japan and is calling for Japanese research entities to jointly work with European counterparts in projects eligible for EU funding.  Some $9.1 billion ($14.2 bilion) worth of funding for ICT cooperation projects will be open to bids later this year under the EU's 7th Framework Program (FP7).

The EU is the biggest single investor in Japan while Japan invests an even larger amount in the EU. Japan and the EU together account for 40% of world trade, and at joint summits held in 2004 and 2007 pledged close cooperation in ICT 'to ensure mutual sustainable prosperity'. It would seem to be a no-brainer.

However, instead of increasing the number of Japanese entities participating in EU-funded ICT projects has been decreasing over the last few years: 49 participated in FP5 but this fell to just 10 in FP6 and so far only seven are involved in the current FP7.

'We are surprised at the low level of Japanese participation,' said Fabio Colasanti, EC director general for Information Society and Media, at the EU-Japan Cooperation Forum on ICT Research held in Tokyo in early March.  Of course, there is research collaboration outside of the FP funded programs, but the EC is determined to draw more Japanese companies and R&D entities into the FP7 plan.

It will not be an easy task. Even the inter-governmental MoU to drive the process is still not signed. While the EC has a unified approach, in Japan the four related ministries (MIC, METI, MEXT and MOFA) are sometimes at odds and METI has been stalling this MoU. Meanwhile, there is often a preference in Japan to deal with individual EU countries rather than Brussels. 

Reassessing the value

Collaboration from the bottom up also faces major problems, like the communication skills of many researchers. But discussions at the conference pointed to the fact that international standardization could become a key driver for collaboration.

However, there is some doubt to whether the current FP7 funding is the optimum means for realizing potential EU-Japan collaboration.

'At this moment, the EC has not clearly been able to show how to make proposals for FP7 projects from outside of Europe, especially for Japanese industry,' said Dr. Fumito Kubota, an executive director in the National Institute o Information and Communications Technology (NICT).
Some Japanese participants were surprised to learn that Japanese companies participating in FP7 projects will only be eligible to receive funding if they have a corporate presence inside the EU.

Richard De La Rue, optoelectronics professor at Glasgow University, told Telecom Asia that the EU and Japan should pursue a new path. 'I think the only thing that would have much impact is for the EU and Japan to agree to put in some serious money - say half a billion euros each - and then have people (universities, research institutes, companies) compete for it in joint projects (roughly 50-50 split),' he said.

Seems it's high time to reconsider how to promote EU-Japan ICT collaboration.

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