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EC Commissioner for Science and Research Dr. Janez Potocnik addresses Vision Research

Dr. Janez Potocnik, EC Commissioner for Science and Research
Image Dr. Janez Potocnik

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Eye and vision research is an important health issue and I am delighted to be with you here in Portorož.

With the ageing demographics of the European population, age-related eye disease is now the commonest cause of visual handicap for those registered as visually impaired. Age related macular disease affects 8.6% of this population over 60, and this means 12.5 million people with potentially blinding disease in Europe as a whole.

Despite the many advances in medical science that you and others are making, the number of people suffering from serious visual impairment is growing. Blindness is one of the most feared health threats in our society. In a society where visual communication is ever-increasing, visual loss has a devastating impact on physical, social and emotional well-being and is also a major economic burden.

So, we share your interest in eye and vision research. Over the last 20 years the European Commission has funded more than 100 collaborative research projects related to vision, blindness and visual impairment, for a total of around 80 to 100 million Euro. The projects cover a wide range from basic to clinical research. And we have some 20-25 million Euros already committed in the current 7th Framework Programme 2007-2013. A new tranche of funding is currently open for applications.

In recent years a number of EU-supported projects have focussed on age-related blindness and vision impairment, notably on macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness in the western world. Furthermore, we have tackled eye and vision research from many different angles, including determinants of degeneration, visual handicaps and blindness, mechanisms of the eye development, modelling of vision mechanisms leading to the development of microsystems for artificial vision, then research on preventive, therapeutic and palliative approaches.

We have also funded work for the needs of developing countries, such as development of portable kits of microsurgery, river blindness studies and vaccination.

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Currently, there is a number of important vision projects underway funded under the EU's previous FP6.

With the current FP7 funding programme we continue to offer the same scope of opportunities for funding as in the past. There is no specific “one-stop-shop”, no “eye disease” priority, but this has never prevented eye and vision researchers from being granted funding under the different R&D priorities of the past FPs.

New projects in the Health theme of FP7, which is of particular relevance for eye and vision related research, cover gene therapy approaches to restore photoreceptor function, imaging approaches to study function and dysfunction of neural circuits in the visual cortex, diagnostics of genetic diseases and coordination and structuring activities in the field of vision research in Europe.

The field of vision and eye research, like most other research, needs a multidisciplinary approach and demands expertise and resources from throughout Europe and sometimes the rest of the world. We welcome the work of societies such as yours in bringing people together, facilitating communication and creating stronger networks to encourage such multidisciplinary collaborations.

To generate greater co-operation and collaboration in all research fields is one of the main purposes of the European Research Area, the ERA. We want to reduce wasteful duplication and ensure the best science is done here, in Europe. Our aim is to make European Research as a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

So I am going to update you quickly on some of the latest work we are doing at EU level.

We are working to develop the ERA, based broadly on following main features:

  • Realising the “fifth freedom”, the free movement of knowledge to increase the free circulation of research, researchers and their skills,
  • Creating networks of modern universities and research organisations to deliver excellent science and technology throughout Europe with an optimal mix of specialisation and variety,
  • Putting in place the best possible framework conditions to attract and retain researchers- and research investments - in Europe and make best use of its results,
  • Demonstrating obvious benefits for all citizens from the contribution of large-scale research efforts in solving major problems of society.

Since its launch in 2000, the ambitious goal of the European Research Area has been to make Europe the world-leader for R&D. But we still have a way to go.

There is great opportunity for European universities, research institutions and researchers. The world of research, the research market is growing. There is more money, more projects, more researchers and more knowledge. But of course the global competition for knowledge, researchers and research investments has increased, and Europe has to face this competition.

The ERA is already boosting our ability to conduct better research more efficiently. By bringing together the research community, industry and policy-makers at a European level, it addresses the fragmentation, duplication and lack of specialisation.

As part of this we are working out the best model of shared governance. Governance and leadership that can push forward so that European Research can truly flourish but which, at the same time, respects and makes best use of the diverse national and regional systems we already have. As shorthand we have called this the Ljubljana process. This cannot be a Commission led project but needs to be a true partnership – after all the Commission is responsible for only about 5% of the public research funding in the EU.

Last year I initiated a review of our progress with the ERA, consulting stakeholders widely on the basis of a Green Paper. As a follow-up, while working with Member States, we have gone ahead with five initiatives:

  • We have produced guidelines for the management of intellectual property rights in public research;
  • We have produced a proposal for a "partnership for researchers" to improve career development and the mobility of European researchers – so that the best people can more easily be in the best places for the work they are doing. The overall aim is to improve the status and attractiveness of the researcher's profession and career;
  • We're creating a standard legal framework for urgently-needed new pan-European research infrastructures;
  • We are also proposing what we call "Joint programming". A process to allow much greater coordination of funding in certain areas and certain countries on a voluntary basis. So that Member States – working with their scientific communities, experts, industry and other stakeholders - can identify certain priority areas and respond to the pressing challenges of society, where the efficiency and effectiveness of research is compromised by inadequate coordination;
  • And lastly, we have just published our international co-operation strategy. This will provide a better framework for European science to work together with the rest of the global research community. And will try to make sure that Europe can benefit from sharing knowledge and promoting excellence at a global level.

So that is a quick update on what we are doing to improve science and science cooperation in Europe. And the European Research Area we are building is about making European Science the best in the world.

Thank you.

Dr. Janez Potocnik
Image Dr. Janez Potocnik

Commissioner Janez Potocnik
Speech at the 11th Congress of European Association for Vision and Eye Research (EVER)
Portorož, Slovenia, October 3, 2008

Source: © European Commisson, 2008