Brussels notebook

Perspective on Research - With huge emphasis on research producing jobs as quickly as possible, scientists warn that while this approach may take care of the present, it will be a failure over the longer term.

The seed bed of true scientific innovation is blue-sky research, the kind that pushes out the frontiers of knowledge and frequently produces the unexpected.

This kind of ground-breaking work is also the goal of many young scientists and the European Research Council has just awarded close to half a billion euro to 328 first class scientists to fulfil their dream.

Most are young with the average age about 35, a third are women, quite a few have returned from promising careers abroad to take advantage of the funding, and some have even come to Europe especially to do the research. 

They are a select group with just 10% of applicants successful. The funds – up to €2 million for up to five years – will allow them to build their own research teams, employing more than 1,400 postdoctoral and PhD students and creating a new generation of top researchers. There is nothing pie-in-the-sky about the projects. They range from trying to understand what makes people learn to nanoparticles in asthma treatment; risky decisions in economic behaviour; social media, political participation and accountability; and the roots of corruption – a behavioural ethics approach.

Some are less obvious – moonshine and string theory; medicine, immortality and yoga; the physics and forensics of neutron star explosions; superfluidity and ferromagnetism of unequal mass fermions with two - and three-body resonant interactions; and quantum photonic engineering. This is the first starting grant round under the newest EU Horizon research funding programme, the single biggest such fund globally. Another round will be awarded next year. 

Credit cards regulation -  The credit and debit card world is getting a shake up with the banks that process the cards being forced to reduce their charges by as much as 80%.

After strong opposition from the banks and the companies that provide the cards – mainly MasterCard and Visa – the European Parliament and the member states finally reached agreement on the new rules.

It should be good news for consumers and businesses. According to the European Commission’s research, the payment market business is worth €130 billion a year, which is equivalent to 1% of the EU’s GDP.

Almost every account holder in the Union has a debit card and 40% also have a credit card. The card providers and the banks have a virtual monopoly, charging different rates to different retailers in different countries. The system is complex with the bank of the consumer charging the merchant’s bank what they call an interchange fee. They can vary the fee they charge on different cards and from time to time offer incentives to consumers to change or use different cards that, in effect, carry higher interchange fees – pushing up the cost to the retailer.

Consumer groups argued retailers recoup the costs by increasing the price of products, and this increase is paid by those paying with a card and those paying cash. The banks and payment service providers argued that to provide adequate levels of standardisation, interoperability and security, they must invest in infrastructure and technological innovation. Such investment results in the creation of new products that they say benefit the consumer. For these reasons, the industry was against the proposed caps, arguing that the fees were needed to support the investment in the infrastructure.

Those who favoured a cap on the fees received a significant boost when in September the European Court of Justice ruled that they violated EU antitrust rules. The new rules will see fees on debit cards limited to 0.2% or 5 cents and on credit cards to 0.3%. Fees have been as high as 1.5%.  

Beware of downloads -  Freemium products are increasingly providing an income for games, news and app developers who display their wares on the Internet.

The system is simple. For these products, the initial download on a limited number of articles is free, but you will be asked, for instance, to pay to access more stories or improve your status in a game. Many of these are microtransactions worth just a few cents, and avid players of popular games, such as Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, as well as news junkies are happy to pay them.

A problem arises when children play so-called free games that are linked to their parent’s credit card, allowing them to unwittingly run up big bills. EU national consumer protection authorities and the European Commission have reached an agreement with the main peddlers of these items, including Apple and Google, on the removal of the word ‘free’ from apps that have paid-for add-ons and the requirement that each payment is authorised with a password and some form of registration.

Games designed for children must not request that children buy items or persuade an adult to do so for them. And these providers have finally also agreed to provide a contact address for queries or complaints. 

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