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Science a key ally to tackle the multiple challenges we face — Jean-Eric Paquet

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Jean-Eric Paquet has been at the helm of the Horizon programme and DG Research and Innovation for the past four years. He will shortly leave to take up the role of the EU’s ambassador to Japan in September 2022. In his final interview with Horizon Magazine as Director General, Paquet reflects on European research and innovation globally and considers the future of collaboration in science research with Japan.

By KEVIN CASEY

In his final interview with Horizon Magazine as Director General before taking up his role of the EU’s ambassador to Japan, Jean-Eric Paquet touches on the potential for deepening science cooperation between the EU and Japan.

Jean-Eric Paquet has been at the helm of the Horizon programme and DG Research and Innovation for the past four years. He will shortly leave to take up the role of the EU’s ambassador to Japan in September 2022. In his final interview with Horizon Magazine as Director General, Paquet reflects on European research and innovation globally and considers the future of collaboration in science research with Japan.

Over the past four years of tenure, it’s been a bumpy ride at times. What kept you awake at night the most?

Well, there are two things which kept me awake at night occasionally, and I’m a relatively good sleeper. On the one hand, the challenge of climate change and the increasingly clear science demanding urgent action. The latest IPCC report calls particularly strongly for urgent action. So, what keeps one awake at night is whether we, with our knowledge, our science, but also with choices made politically by society, can we find the disruptive solutions which will be needed for that urgency?

And then the second one was, would science be fast enough to address the coronavirus? And the answer here has been positive, very positive. It kept me awake at night a few times in 2020.

What do you see is the number one achievement of EU-funded research in the recent past?

I think I would mention two aspects. The first one is the increasingly visible correlation between European Research Council (ERC) funding grants and European Nobel Prize winners. I call the ERC, sometimes, Europe’s Nobel Prize factory. We will increasingly see recognition of the amazing quality of European science which is being brought forward by the competitive and disruptive nature of the selection process of the ERC.

The other is, of course, the messenger-RNA vaccine, the one developed by BioNtech (otherwise known as the ‘Pfizer vaccine’). The reality is that the science of the vaccine is 100% European. A team of scientists which had been working on this technology in cancer immunotherapy, decided as soon as the DNA of the vaccine was available at the very beginning in January 2020, to repurpose the technology.

We met them in March and April regularly. And they were absolutely clear that they would have the vaccine in good time during the year. This looked near impossible – vaccine development takes many years, up to a decade.

We had no limitations in terms of a cohort for doing clinical trials, there was funding available, obviously, because everyone needed solutions, but still, it is the fact that the fundamental research was happening that allowed this company to be the absolute innovator, bringing the fundamental science into a product in a matter of a few months.

This is, I think, the best ever story we will have to tell on the value of science in Europe.

Is the Horizon programme agile enough to cope with unexpected challenges?

Well, firstly, the teams in DG Research and Innovation were following developments in Wuhan in early January 2020 and realised that this was going to become a major health threat. It was not yet a pandemic. The first discussions in Europe of the news from Wuhan were starting mid-January but the pandemic was declared only in March 2020. So, at that moment, my teams were already telling me, this is really going to become big, we need to be ready.

At the end of January, we were the first to launch a call for projects on vaccine development and therapies on clinical trial platforms. By the end of March, when this was declared a pandemic, the evaluation of the projects already took place, then grant agreements could be signed. So, it can be very, very fast in terms of the deployment of the instrument.

What benefits do you foresee for joint undertakings in scientific research between the EU and Japan?

Well, I think the positioning of Europe is that the best science globally is produced here. I think we should be really, very proud of that and continue obviously to invest in our science capacity.

Obviously, we are not alone in that. There are a number of other science giants in the world, and I think we are today at a moment where the notion of global science is much eroded, because countries including China, for example, but they are not alone in that, have made science very visibly and audibly and politically an instrument of technological dominance.

We need to be aware of that and be, I think, much less candid in the way we team up across the globe. I’m certainly not saying that we should not work with partners across the globe. On the contrary, I think for most of the challenges which science deals with, the global dimension is essential.

But we need to do it on different terms. Firstly, of reciprocity. This is not very often the case. We need to do it on the basis of values, of research integrity, to ensure that when we team up and share our intelligence, our resources, our results, they are used for good purpose, also by our partners.

There is a lot of collaboration worldwide, which takes place bottom up out of national systems, and rightly so. And that will continue. But if you look at it from a European perspective, I think we really need to be looking at the areas where the interests of Europe are.

I think the research agenda with Japan should be extremely broad. I think there is a clear sense that we share the same values, we have policy agendas which are aligned, and there is absolutely no limit in principle to the science cooperation, which we should deepen.  Horizon Europe association, if successfully negotiated, will be just the starting point. So, let’s not entirely anticipate these negotiations. We are very ambitious on the European side.

Science has a diversity problem. What does EU science and research in general need to do to become more inclusive?

I think in European research, we’ve been honestly rather good on gender. Of course, much more needs to be done, but we can look back at the last 10 years of genuine mobilisation of research organisations in Europe around the agenda of diversity, both in the management of research and in the composition of research teams. However, if you look at PhD students for example, a lot of progress has been made.

I think it’s not necessarily going fast enough. I think we cannot be complacent on gender either. We’ve seen that during the pandemic, the genuine erosion of the position of female scientists with less time to publish and there has been the daily impact of remote working with families where female spouses took the brunt of it, in many cases. 

And that has really started to show in the statistics already, so I think we need to be careful not to be complacent about the real progress achieved. 

And this is also why on the Horizon Europe, we have now put in place this requirement to have effective gender equality plans in place in research organisations for them to be eligible. Without credible, active gender equality plans, those participants would, in principle, not be eligible. So, I hope this will give another boost to that work. 

On diversity seen from a social or an ethnic point of view, we certainly can do much more. Of course, this is not something which is as straightforward as gender plans because there is much less data available for cultural reasons. In Europe, we deal with this very differently from places like the US, for example. But I would very much accept the concern or criticism that our teams in Europe are not diverse enough. And more needs to be done.

What do you see is the biggest challenges facing humanity globally in the coming years? 

One of the deepest challenges, again, is climate change. Europe is particularly well positioned, and I think will reach its climate target, but that does not mean that the world can deal with it at the same pace, with the same urgency. 

We represent 7-8% of world emissions. So, the issue is really to get others on board. Japan is, of course, a like-minded pioneer with Europe, and that’s also very much why I’m so keen to go and work with our Japanese partners to ensure that, together, we can help the rest of the world to really engage on technology development and deployment. 

The second challenge is, I think, the increased fragmentation of our societies, in part driven by climate change, but by very many other drivers. And when I speak of fragmentation, I am, of course, thinking of political developments, of competing political narratives that were levelled at Europeans and several like-minded partners. 

We have a lot of pressure on our societies, which I think are also largely driven by social fragmentation, by fake news. And I think here, again, science will be needed because these fragmentations are multifaceted, and the solutions need to be systemic as well. 

This interview was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine

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Substantial progress made in Vienna; sides focusing on Safeguards

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image source: Tehran Times

The third day of talks between experts from Iran and the EU centered around technical and legal matters regarding the Safeguards agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Delegates from Iran, the EU and the U.S. resumed talks in Vienna on Thursday after nearly a five-month hiatus. This round of talks started on Thursday without the presence of nuclear negotiators from the European trio – Germany, France and Britain. Only experts from these three countries have attended the negotiations.  

Iran believes that any agreement on restoring the nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is dependent on putting an end to unsubstantiated allegations about Iran’s past nuclear program. Iran insists that these questions had already been resolved within the PMD, when the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015.

According to reports, substantial progress has been made in bringing the views of Iran and the U.S. closer together during the last three days. However, in Tehran’s view nothing is resolved until everything is settled.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), also confirmed on Saturday that talks are mainly focused on Safeguards issues.

“We are now negotiating,” Kamalvandi said of the talks between Iran’s nuclear experts with Mora.

On the atmosphere of the talks, he said, “It is not bad.”

Mohammad Marandi, a senior expert on nuclear issues, also told Al-Mayadeen TV that “progresses” have been made in Vienna, but one should be “cautious”. He argued the success of talks is 50 percent. Marandi said the differences remain only between Iran and the United States.

He added, “We have heard from certain European sources that the Americans have revived their views on certain issues.”

The Russian chief negotiator in the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, also tweeted that there is “no unresolvable issue” on the table in the Vienna talks.

Source: Tehran Times

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Escalation of violence in Gaza

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike (file photo) UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

The ongoing and serious escalation of violence in and around Gaza between Palestinian militants and Israel has claimed the lives of 13 Palestinians by Israeli airstrikes, including a 5-year-old child and one woman, informed Lynn Hastings, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the territory.

In a statement published on Saturday, Ms. Hastings expressed her grave concern for the situation that has left more than 100 Palestinians injured, as well as 7 Israelis.

Residential areas in both Gaza and Israel have also been hit and 31 families in Gaza are now homeless.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is already dire and can only worsen with this most recent escalation.   The hostilities must stop to avoid more deaths and injuries of civilians in Gaza and Israel. The principles of international humanitarian law including those of distinction, precaution and proportionality must be respected by all parties”, she urged.

Basic services in danger

Ms. Hastings warned that fuel for the Gaza Power Plant is due to run out this Saturday and electricity has already been cut.

“The continued operation of basic service facilities such as hospitals, schools, warehouses, and designated shelters for internally displaced persons is essential and now at risk”, she cautioned.

The Humanitarian Coordinator added that movement and access of humanitarian personnel, for critical medical cases, and for essential goods, including food and fuel into Gaza, must not be impeded so that humanitarian needs can be met. 

She also underscored that Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups must immediately allow the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to bring in fuel, food, and medical supplies and to deploy humanitarian personnel in accordance with international principles.

“I reiterate the United Nations Special Coordinator’s appeal on all sides for an immediate de-escalation and halt to the violence, to avoid destructive ramifications, particularly for civilians”, Ms. Hastings concluded.

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Nuclear-free world is possible, test-ban treaty chief says

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Nuclear weapons will continue to pose a risk to humanity unless countries fully adhere to the treaty that prohibits their testing, a senior UN official said at a press conference in New York on Friday. 

Journalists were briefed by Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the body that oversees the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signature 25 years ago but has yet to enter into force because it requires ratification by a handful of key countries, which have nuclear capabilities. 

“Once in force, the CTBT will serve as an essential element of a nuclear weapons-free world. In order to achieve this world, we all aspire to, a universal and effectively verifiable prohibition on nuclear testing is a fundamental necessity,” he said. 

World at risk 

Mr. Floyd was speaking against the backdrop of the latest nuclear non-proliferation conference, which began this week at UN Headquarters after two years of pandemic-related delays. 

Countries are reviewing progress towards implementing the 50-year-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

At the opening on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation, away from nuclear annihilation”

“Until we have full adherence to the CTBT, nuclear testing and the proliferation of nuclear weapons will continue to pose unacceptable risk to humanity,” said Mr. Floyd. 

Drop in testing 

The CTBT complements the non-proliferation treaty, said Mr. Floyd, and it has already made a difference in the world. 

“We’ve gone from over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1996, to fewer than 12 tests since the treaty opened for signature,” he said. “Only one country has tested this millennium.” 

The treaty has also received near-universal support. So far, 186 countries have signed the CTBT, and 174 have ratified it, four in the last six months alone.  

However, entry into force requires that the treaty must be signed and ratified by 44 specific nuclear technology holder countries, eight of which have yet to ratify it: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the United States. 

Asked about these countries, Mr. Floyd replied “they have their own calculus and strategic objectives and geopolitical considerations as to whether they feel free to move forward”, adding that they all support the CTBT and its objectives. 

Helping nations 

Mr. Floyd also reported on the activities of the organization that promotes the treaty, which he heads. 

The CTBTO, as it has known, has built a state-of-the-art verification system to detect nuclear explosions, capable of 24/7 monitoring.  

Staff also train inspectors from Member States so that they are ready to conduct on-site verifications once the treaty enters into force. Furthermore, countries use CTBTO data for civilian and scientific applications, such as tsunami warning systems and other university research. 

“Even without having entered into force, the CTBT is already helping to save lives in countries around the world,” said Mr. Floyd.  “Even those that have not yet ratified the treaty are benefiting from this global collaboration and technological expertise.” 

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