Europe is moving faster than cynics expected -- but slower than advocates hoped -- in getting its technological act together. The foreign ministers and research ministers of the 18 countries participating in the Eureka research project managed to write a charter and set research priorities at their second conference in Hannover Nov. 5-6. But government funding and organization remain the big question marks.
The delegates agreed to pool their research and develop civilian products for a ``world-wide market'' in several fields. These include especially computer information and communication, robotics, lasers, and biotechnology. The overall aim is to catch up with the United States and Japan in high tech.
Besides developing superfast computers and lasers for use in fabricating materials, the Europeans plan on half a dozen other projects. They will be measuring traces of environmental pollution in the troposphere, searching for more efficient conversion of sunlight to energy, and exploring the establishment of a master computer center linking university and company computers in Europe.
On money, the greatest disappointment to the French promoters of Eureka was the failure of the West German government to pledge a specific amount of public financing for projects. In Hannover, Chancellor Helmut Kohl indicated a willingness to provide state support for individual projects, but mentioned no figures. Intra-cabinet wrestlings in Bonn determined that government funding of Eureka must come from existing research allocations and not from new money. Britain takes a similar stand, saying it is w illing to put modest amounts of government money into Eureka projects from research funds already allocated.
London and Bonn both argue that government subsidies should be minimal, since private investment tends to be far more efficient. Reflecting this view the ``basic declaration'' adopted by the 18 nations in Hannover states that the primary source of funding should be private enterprise, the second the open capital market, and only third, government subventions.
France, so far the only government to have pledged public money for Eureka with 1 billion francs ($125 million) -- is nonetheless welcoming Dr. Kohl's warm endorsement of Eureka as a tacit promise of eventual financing from Bonn.
On organization, the ministers agreed to set up a minimal secretariat as an informational clearing house. They specified that this permanent agency -- which will serve all 18 Eureka participants -- including 12 present and future members of the European Community, plus six others -- will be independent of the EC. The smaller European nations have been urging a more powerful secretariat to protect their interests against their bigger brothers, but Britain and West Germany in particular have favored a ske leton organization that would be flexible and not get bogged down in bureaucracy. This time even the French -- under the influence of their pragmatic young technocrats -- are willing to abandon a grand bureaucracy.
In his opening address to the Hannover conference Kohl warned against ``Europessimism'' in seeking to make European industry technologically competitive with the US and Japan. Europe invests just about the same amount in basic research as does the US (and more than Japan), and the hope of Eureka fans is that by avoiding the fragmentation of research in so many different countries and companies, Europe can at last get the same payoff from its research that the US does. By focusing applied research on cer tain priorites, the Europeans also hope to overcome their traditional weakness (in comparison with the US) in engineering sound scientific research into competitive products.
The British agree strongly with this approach, and also argue that an essential precondition for such commercial success is to turn Europe into a real common market by dismantling the many trade barriers that still remain even within the EC.
Eureka has developed rapidly since France first proposed it last spring as a civilian alternative to European participation in the US Strategic Defense Initative. The first ministerial conference was held in July in Paris. The third will be held in London next May.