Partly at the initiative of Minister Van Mechelen's office, who was the then minister for science and innovation, the VRWB launched a project in 2004, in which data about the Flemish participation in aerospace research was mapped within the framework of the ESA for the period 1997-2003. A Technical Committee for Aerospace Research was charged with this study and reviewed the return that Flanders obtains from the extensive government investments into aerospace research, among other things, and how this has changed since the previous VRWB analyses. In 1993 and 1997, the VRWB had formulated recommendations related to the same, in which the regional imbalance for the return was criticized. Recommendation 28 in brief...
Belgium has made a strategic choice in the past for aerospace research and has always played a pioneering role in European initiatives in this sector, even though it is a small country. The aerospace budget amounts to about 160 million EUR/year and is therefore the largest single expense within the federal budget for scientific policy. In contrast to its neighbouring countries, Belgium has opted not to build any personal aerospace agency with its own priorities. Aerospace research is reconciled to, and dependent on large international research programmes, within which ESA (European Space Agency) plays the main role.
ESA activities can be split up into obligatory and optional programmes. Each member country contributes to the obligatory programmes depending on its relative economic weight. For the optional programmes, each member country itself determines its participation percentage based on skills present and expected scientific and industrial return. ESA assignments/projects take place via contracts concluded with participants from the member countries, where it is endeavoured to achieve a reasonable return of about 1.
FLEMISH RETURN SHOULD IMPROVE FURTHER
From the new results, it appears that the Flemish share in the Belgian return has risen from less than 18% at the end of the '80s to about 35% currently. When account is taken of the technological value, the degree of innovation of the contracts (expressed as 'weighed return'), Flanders just about gets the best return (40.5%). But regardless of this doubling against the VRWB's report in 1993, the action for recovering lost ground is still too limited and remains subject to further correction.
The reason for the Flemish under-return is the obligatory ESA programmes, but the VRWB does not expect many possibilities for further growth to a reasonable share.
The challenge lies in looking for openings for Flemish industry and knowledge institutions in the optional programmes. An amendment to the subscription to these programmes in which the choice is completely oriented to the available potential in Flanders is necessary. The analysis report provides the items needed for this purpose. It would be better if a reasonable distribution factor were agreed upon, similar to other federal programmes, to coordinate the subscription in the ESA programmes with the expected return, and if this would be done for the entire expenditure.
Also for PRODEX, a distribution factor between the different regions needs to be discussed and there should be open and transparent calls (for tenders).
DUTIDUTIES AND PARTICIPATION
Currently, Flanders has no say in the aerospace policy concerning ESA and there is no structural discussion with the Communities and Regions in this matter. The VRWB points to the necessity of a recognised discussion/management structure with representatives of the different regions, where the distribution factor is formally discussed and monitored and where the choice of the programmes is discussed.
FLEMISH AEROSPACE POLICY
In contrast to Wallonia, aerospace is not actively supported by the Flemish government. The Flemish government should (continue to) implement an active and stimulating policy in the area of technology, according to the VRWB, in which aerospace research can also be supported optimally. The programming of ESA should be seen as an opportunity window to build technologies which can serve the aerospace sector both internally and externally. In this regard, the existing skills (IMEC, VITO, universities and companies) should be involved, and existing structures and channels (IWT, poles of excellence, etc.) used. A momentum must be started so as to cluster these skills, should be put into motion. The Council has a lean consultation structure in mind, preferably without additional unwieldy administration, but does not express the form. It is certainly indicated that aerospace characteristics are bundled in the same.
In the margin, the VRWB also points to the problem of dual use - research with a military component or affinity - which faces an obstacle in Flanders.In view of the changed societal context and the evolution to 'security' research (e.g., in FP 7), the Council urgently requests reviewing this measure to make it more flexible.
Finally, the VRWB considers that such extensive government investments for aerospace research should be made accountable. What is the economic, societal and scientific return of this financial effort? Is a cost-benefit analysis not relevant here? The plea for a thorough policy discussion is repeated.