News Article

Research Dilemna

The annual MEDEA+ conference was held in Berlin last month. With the worst downturn in microelectronics history limping to a close, the mood at the event was one of European unity. Unified in the realisation that the European microelectronics industry was heading for potential financing difficulty. David Ridsdale was there to hear the feedback from Europe’s foremost research consortia.

Berlin was the setting for the 2004 MEDEA+ conference and Doug Dunne of ASML pointed out that as a recently unified city it was appropriate to hold the event in the German capital. A unified approach to the European microelectronics industry was a key feature of this year's convention. Unified in the knowledge that the European industry will face difficulty if research funds do not reach similar levels enjoyed by the USA and Japan.

In the opening presentation Gerard Matherton, Medea+ office director, made it clear that future Medea+ projects were in jeopardy unless government funding increased at both a national and European level. This warning was repeated many times by different members of the Medea+ board. Matherton implied that funding needed to be found for fourteen projects that were selected and labelled six months ago.

Despite the gloomy research outlook the conference also reported on the 38 projects the Medea+ initiative currently participates in. The projects involve more than 280 partners from 16 countries across Europe. The average contribution across Europe is more than 2,500 highly qualified engineers each year, at a cost of about 500 million euros per year. Since European wide research co-operation began in 1989 through the Joint European Submicron Silicon Initiative (Jessi), Europe has come along in leaps and bounds with three manufacturers now in the top ten list of global microelectronics manufacturers. There was only one company in the top ten prior to the collaborative efforts.

Announcements in the USA and Japan recently regarding the billions of dollars to be invested into nanotechnology have confirmed fears that Europe is lagging behind in research. European research investment from government bodies has remained static for a number of years now while at the same time companies have increased their research investment by a factor of six. The board of Medea+ have begun a programme of advocacy on behalf of the European industry to lobby for appropriate funding from government sources. The mood at the Medea+ conference suggested that this is an important enough task to involve all levels of European microelectronics concerns.

Dr Manfred Dietrich of the German Ministry of Education and Research made an important distinction by describing government money as an investment rather than a subsidy. This is an important distinction at the present time with individual governments concerned regarding investment rules developing in Europe and a cynicism outside the industry that there is a push for handouts. It will be quite a task for Medea and groups like them to convince both governments and the public to take a long term view and see the lasting impact of appropriate research into the industry now. There are enough examples in Europe and around the world that provide evidence of the long term benefits to a region.

Following the untimely death of Jean-Pierre Noblanc Medea+ announced a new Chairman in Arthur van der Poel. Van der Poel has recently been the CEO of Philips Semiconductors. In his first speech, van der Poel reiterated the mood of the conference and focused on the successes that have developed through pan-European projects and the growing concern that the region will fall behind without a concerted commitment. Van der Poel commented that underinvestment in Europe will only speed the manufacturing exodus to Asian markets.

European microelectronics has experienced remarkable growth in the last decade and much of that growth can be attributed to the effect of pan European collaborative efforts. Successful companies such as ASML and ARM Holdings both came out of pan European research efforts and were seeded with European Union investment and funding. Both companies have become number one in their field and are perfect examples of the longer term impact of sensible long term planning.

In the late eighties the European industry was in crisis and only a collaborative effort enabled the industry to grow with such vigour. Those behind the successes are now warning that the crisis is returning. This time there is an effort to ensure that improvements are made before things get any worse. Despite wanting to compete as a region of a global market Europe still has national and company complications that an area like the USA does not have. Not only is a concerted effort required for research funding but a clear and effective manner must be defined in how Europe spends research funds.

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