Europe’s New Nerve Centre

Central European countries band together for science - and possibly new industries.

News | David Reali | February 2012

The founding members of CEI were Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia in 1989. Today, 16 more countries are cooperating. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

On a mild and overcast day in mid-October, representatives from 14 countries convened for the Central European Initiative’s (CEI) first ministerial meeting on science and technology in Trieste, Italy. Their discussions would help shape the future of research and development in Central and Eastern Europe for years to come. Austria is one of 18 E.U. and non-E.U. member nations invited to share research, manpower and facilities – one the very building we were in.

In an assembly room inside the Synchrotron Elletra/Fermi laboratories, nestled in the hills overlooking Trieste, the delegates took their seats as Zarco Obradovic, Serbian Minister of Education and Science, opened the conference that would hopefully yield greater cohesion, cooperation and growth for the countries involved.

Since its conception in Budapest in 1989, the CEI’s core mission has been to promote regional cooperation between Central and Eastern European countries. Through a unified effort towards set scientific goals, the CEI hopes to support the economic growth and development of its member states. Thus, the objective of these few days was to determine where the CEI’s resources and member states’ efforts should be placed.

"Serbia… is committed to the incorporation of European standards into the system of education and science," Obradovic said in his opening remarks. "Certain progress and results have been achieved but at the time of global economic crisis, we cannot be fully satisfied with the results achieved," – a reality common to a large portion of CEI member states.  "Serbia is a nation with respectable capacities, but our experience in joint projects [is] that we have gained in cooperation." Serbia has worked with eminent Italian institutions such as Synchrotron Elletra and Fermi Light Laboratories, Centers of Excellence of the ‘Trieste System,’ International Center for Genetic engineering and biotechnology.

By the end of the day, the delegates would be taken to two of these institutes, allowing them to see the value of regional cooperation. The Synchrotron Elletra and Fermi Laboratories are among the modern analytical gems available to researchers from CEI member states. The first is an immense cyclic particle accelerator that brings electrons to nearly the speed of light by pulling them along an undulating path with powerful electromagnets. The synchrotron is capable of material analyses ranging from spectroscopy, to imaging, to diffraction. It allows scientists to study the otherwise undetectable atomic and electronic nature of matter quickly, non-destructively and with high sensitivity.

Next door, the Fermi Laboratory houses a free electron laser spanning over 360 meters, an impressive structure that has recently been constructed in order to complement Elletra. Fermi can be used to examine the dynamic behavior of matter i.e., how compounds change and interact with other compounds. The ability to observe rapid chemical, biochemical, and physical reactions makes this a promising new tool.

A short bus ride away, we were taken to the headquarters of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) where scientists from 61 member states were being trained in molecular biology while researching solutions to problems in medicine, nutrition, industrial development and agriculture.

That evening it was agreed that efforts should be focused on the development of efficient biofuels. Unlike first generation biofuels, the next generation are expected to cut CO2 by 60-80%, said Giorgio Rosso Cicogna, CEI Alternate Secretary General. If this project were successful, he estimates, approximately one million jobs would be created over the next 10 years within the CEI, and biofuels could make up 50% of all the fuel consumed for transportation. Algae, for example, can be farmed, harvested, refined and distributed by the same company or organization, thus eliminating dependence on foreign investment.

If its current goals prove successful, the CEI could contribute substantially to an economically stable and more integrated CEE. Manz see biofuels as a viable mechanism for economic growth and stability throughout the region, as well as a cleaner global future -- if these estimates are realistic. In the meantime, the CEI continues to support various scientific endeavors and offers opportunities for cultural exchange and economic and political cooperation between member states.

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