THE MAGAZINE

Security Research Gets a Boost from the EU

By John Barham

The European Union is ramping up funding to develop new security technologies and to encourage cooperation in Europe’s fragmented security industry. The European Commission has allocated €1.4 billion ($2.2 billion) for security technology research in its seventh Framework Program, the EU’s main instrument for supporting scientific and technological development. The current program runs through 2013 and has a €53.2 billion budget, its largest yet.

The budget for the security technology research component is 15 times larger than in the previous framework program. Officials in Brussels say there is a good justification for such a large increase. The EU has been concerned about “the radicalization of some populations either inside or outside Europe” for a long time, says Tjien-Khoen Liem, acting head of the security R&D unit at the Directorate-General for Enterprise.

Although the EC began increasing its budget for technology research after 9-11, before terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and Spain, it was only in 2004 that leaders agreed on a substantial increase in funding. The latest increase “reflects a real pan-European concern with security issues [such as] terrorism and organized crime and WMD proliferation,” says Guy Ben-Ari, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Commission [has realized that] it cannot just chug along as it did in the past by incrementally increasing support for these activities.” 

Liem says that the European Commission has also begun to cooperate its efforts more closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Directorate for Science & Technology.

A 2007 Commission paper says the security program should focus on technologies that reduce risks from terrorism and organized crime, natural disasters, and industrial accidents. Securing critical infrastructure and protecting the EU’s external borders are key research areas as well. Current security-related research programs include development of a mobile device that can locate “home manufacturing” of explosives and the development of a European ballistic database.

The European Commission also aims to use the framework program as a lever to raise the competitiveness of Europe’s small and fragmented security industry by encouraging companies from different countries and sectors to work on projects together. The EU program is intended to dovetail with security research programs run by individual countries. The United Kingdom and Germany invest the most in security technologies. Germany has a three-year, €123 million program to fund security-related research programs.

The United Kingdom announced its own Security and Counter-Terrorism Science and Innovation strategy in June 2007, which it says is based on close collaboration with the European Union and the United States. It has not announced this program’s budget yet.

Companies as well as government agencies and universities based in the EU and Israel, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey are eligible to apply for funding. “We publish an annual work program that overlaps with the following year’s program,” says Liem. “We issue a call for proposals and get [external] experts to evaluate the proposals. They decide which are the best and suggest that the Commission spend money on them. And then we negotiate the contract with each research consortium.”

The Commission covers up to 75 percent of the cost of approved projects.

The EU’s grandiose framework programs have plenty of critics. They complain that it funds incremental innovation instead of seeking breakthrough technologies. Brussels has backed only one major new technology, the GSM standard for cell phones.

Critics add that the approval process is slow and that even with its larger budget, the European Union’s grants remain relatively small. Furthermore, they say that the Commission’s project management process and financial oversight capabilities are inadequate.

This time around, the EU is experimenting by handing responsibility for project management to consortium leaders. They believe big companies such as BAE Systems or EADS will have better project management and financial controls than smaller companies or research agencies.

Much depends on whether the selection panels that analyze grant proposals force applicants to meet high standards. Ben-Ari, who worked on winning EU funding for Israeli projects, says, “The best experts aren’t easily fooled. They don’t approve weak proposals.”

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