Collaboration in Research – Developing the Mechanism

Anniversary Flashback on the development of EURAMET's European Metrology Research Programmes

As the new millennium dawned, the European National Metrology Institutes were faced with a number of growing challenges that became known as the 'European metrology dilemma'.

Even in the larger NMIs, demands for new measurement capabilities outstripped the national resources available to develop them. It also outstripped any realistic expectation of resources going forward. There was a voracious need for measurements of increased precision over ever wider ranges, and this need was coming from all directions.

Better measurement was increasingly recognised as a key enabling mechanism for innovation, helping not only with research but also on bridging the gap between laboratory prototype and marketplace expectations. Emerging areas such as biotechnology and nanotechnology crucially depended on advanced traceable SI measurements to create reliable products and services and to demonstrate their regulatory compliance.

At the same time, traditional industrial stakeholders also recognised that better measurements helped increase functionality and reliability, and reduce waste in the production process. In short, better metrology helped cut costs and increase value, exactly what manufacturers needed to remain competitive in an increasingly globalised world.

Additionally, areas such as clinical chemistry, not in themselves new, were now requiring accuracy that depended on precision measurements just at a time when the possibilities were opening up due to advances in measurement science. Consequently, this community also began to see the value of a sound metrological approach and looked for support from the NMI community. Chemical metrology began to take off and many NMIs setup dedicated departments. Yet resources in the European NMIs were limited and even the larger NMIs felt under pressure.

There was also no sign that government budgets would come to the rescue, so a more creative solution was needed. It became increasingly clear that the European nations must somehow get more impact out of their unconnected and uncoordinated investments in national measurement systems. In late 2001 and through 2002 the desire for a wide-ranging study to see what was feasible at European level was explored within EUROMET's Committee for Interdisciplinary Metrology.

Discussions caused some unease. Everyone was aware that moving towards some sort of, at that time unknown, coordinated solution meant giving up at least some element of national control of the agenda, and smaller NMIs were concerned about their very existence. However, in the end, everybody came to the same conclusion. The European NMIs had to work together, collaborate and collectively Europe had to up its game.

With common purpose agreed, EUROMET launched a successful bid into the European Framework Programme. This would allow for a collaborative study that formed the basis of the eventual European Metrology Research Programme. This 15-months study, 'Metrology in the European Research Area' (MERA) was successfully evaluated and launched in September 2002 and received around 450 000 euro of  EU funding.

The study was divided into ten work packages, including preparatory data, collection and analysis, two workshops and consultation with stakeholders at European and national level, with a specific work package looking at the particular challenges faced by NMIs in the newly associated states. MERA, set within the political context of constructing the European Research Area, laid the foundations for all the following actions, iMERA, iMERA-Plus, EMRP and EMPIR.

Although the most modest of the suite of EU projects, in some ways, it was also the most ambitious.The study took a 'clean sheet' approach and looked not only at research but also in service delivery and shared facilities, this means at all aspects of European metrology. The NMIs within EUROMET already had a good track record of collaborating in the scientific comparisons that are the bedrock of metrology. This foundation gave some confidence: the NMI directors knew each other and trusted each other. However, no one was under any illusion that the things being considered represented a vastly ambitious step that would change the metrology landscape in Europe forever.

The task ahead seemed daunting. Working together previously had been on asmall project-by-project basis and depended on objectives, resources and budgets aligning by coincidence. Commitments had been on a 'best effort' basis, and many projects faltered for these reasons. Not everyone thought things could be changed. It was understood from the beginning that to make real progress it was not sufficient to have a partnership solely of NMI directors. Thegovernment officials behind the NMIs had no international exposure and no knowledge of each other, yet for the changes being contemplated their support would be crucial. Building a community that included as many of the government officials as possible, as formal project partners, proved pivotal to success.

MERA involved just eleven EUROMET countries. However, this was sufficient at this stage as these included the leading NMIs. The modest size of the partnership increased flexibility and speed of execution, and as the consultations and workshops involved all EUROMET members nothing was lost. MERA concluded that significantly increased collaboration in research and development should be the cornerstone of any solution to the European metrology dilemma. It identified the key issues to be addressed, confirming that a new paradigm for NMI collaboration was indeed warranted.

Whilst research collaboration has progressed beyond what could be envisaged at that time, some of the other aspects explored back in 2002 and 2003 remain challenges for EURAMET today as they move beyond EMPIR. There is still more to do.

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