The European Union is currently losing the race to fund and foster research, but the game isn't over, says Europe's digital agenda commissioner.
Commissioner Neelie Kroes was speaking at the launch of ICT 2010-Digitally Driven, the largest information technology event organised by the European Commission, where funding was clearly the issue of the day.
"In times of nearly universal budget cuts, such discussions about the future of ICT research naturally have a strong economic focus. Taxpayers, ministers and people in need have good reasons to expect that all public expenditure is duly justified," Kroes said. "That does not make it impossible to increase public investments in ICT research. But it does mean we have to make the strongest possible case."
Public funding is clearly needed. Long-term research and development is often risky and expensive - the IT sector spends double that of the automotive industry and triple that of the pharmaceutical industry on research. In the past 30 years the European Commission has invested €20 billion (US$27 billion) in IT research, boosting Europe's share of R&D from 10 percent to 25 percent of the global IT market.
Worldwide IT research has led to venture capital investment, patents and high-wage employment in nearly all industrialised countries and the Digitally Driven exhibition showed more than 100 publically funded projects. Major themes represented at the event in Brussels included Green IT, intelligent robots and virtual reality innovation.
The benefits that innovation and research can bring were clearly on display. Green energy aimed at cutting CO2 emissions were showcased by BeAware and Solid State Lighting. Both projects received funding under the 7th Framework Programme.
BeAware has created wireless interactive sensors to measure how much energy is used by household appliances, allowing consumers to identify and reduce their energy consumption. The technology is currently being tested by families in Finland and Italy.
The Solid State Lighting project, meanwhile, has developed organic light emitting diodes that are five times more efficient than conventional lighting. With lighting accounting for 20 percent of all Europe's electricity needs, this could help cut CO2 emissions dramatically.
Presenccia and Playmancer are both virtual technology solutions that could help people with physical or mental disorders. Presenccia uses a brain-computer interface to help physically disabled people overcome limb loss. Virtual reality could help teach amputees how to use a prosthetic limb or even help paralysed people to type. Meanwhile PlayMancer exploits the potential benefits of 3D games to alleviate the negative effects of mental disorders and help patients cope with regular therapy.
Kompaï and iCub are intelligent robots that are designed to assist ill, disabled or elderly people who need help in everyday tasks. Kompaï can speak, understand what is said, find its way around the house. ICub can sit, crawl and pick up objects and will learn from its surroundings just like a child.
Innovation such as these would not have been feasible without public funding. A review of the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) is due to be published before the end of the year and will give direction for the structure of FP8, which will come into force in 2013.