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Brussels, 16 March 2012

The European Commission's in-house science service – the Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Being the only Commission service in charge of direct research, the JRC provides independent scientific and economic support to the Europe 2020 policy priorities in terms of competitiveness, sustainability and grand societal challenges such as health, safety and security.

The JRC plays a key role in the Innovation Union and supports the other Europe 2020 flagships through pre-normative research, it contributes to standard-setting and harmonisation of reference measurements and methods; it looks at the link between competitiveness, research and industrial structure and provides quantitative analyses and impact assessments of initiatives which aim at strengthening the financial sector.

JRC's work also benefits directly the European citizens with a wide range of initiatives which improve all aspects of modern life, from a healthy environment, energy efficiency and renewable energies to consumer safety and crisis response.

The JRC has its headquarters in Brussels and its seven scientific institutes are located on sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain with specialist and unique research laboratories and facilities. With an annual budget of around €350 million from the EU's research framework programme its 2800 staff work on the following key priorities:

  • Environment and climate change

  • Energy and transport

  • Agriculture and food security

  • Health and consumer protection

  • Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)

  • Safety and security (including nuclear)

Spotlight on selected JRC research results and activities:

  • In a world characterized by uncertainties, unforeseen and increasingly inter-connected events, risks and threats, timely access by policy and decision-makers to relevant information is becoming more important than ever before. The new European Crisis Management Laboratory (ECML), equipped with state-of-the-art information technologies, addresses this through development and testing of integrated systems which provide a dynamic situational awareness for crisis and disaster preparedness and response on any location or issue or event around the world. This knowledge is the first line of defense and helps to guarantee autonomy in decision-making to allow informed early action. A concrete example of such systems is the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), a web-based platform developed together with the United Nations. It alerts governments, rescue services, civil protection and humanitarian organisations in case of disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding – and helps minimise loss through better coordination of international response. The JRC is involved not only in the emergency phase of the crisis management cycle, but also in the process of planning recovery and reconstruction after a disaster. For example, following the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, rapid damage assessment, based on analysis of pre-earthquake satellite data and post-earthquake aerial images, ensured concentration of relief efforts in areas that were most affected. The comprehensive building damage atlas issued consequently together with the United Nations and the World Bank, provided the evidence base for the mobilisation of resources to finance the recovery and reconstruction.

  • Improving financial services and protecting the Consumer:

Testing new rules for the financial sector: In 2011, the European Commission presented two proposals for legislation with potentially far-reaching consequences for financial markets. These were: new rules requiring banks to hold more and better capital and a harmonised framework taxing the financial sector.

The JRC contributed to the assessment of the impact of both proposals by means of a sophisticated statistical model, which it had developed in collaboration with other Commission services and academia. The SYMBOL model (SYstemic Model of Banking Originated Losses) allows the simulation of potential crises in the banking sector under different assumptions for the regulation in place to prevent them. It examines how different factors, such as tighter capital requirements or the introduction of resolution funds, affect the probability and magnitude of economic losses and liquidity shortfalls due to bank defaults. It can be used to investigate which combinations of regulatory changes are most effective in enhancing financial stability.

When using SYMBOL to assess the impact of the proposed capital requirements in a number of EU countries, the JRC found that the new rules would reduce the risk of systemic banking crisis by at least 29% and up to 90% for some EU countries, with an average of about 57% among the analysed countries.

JRC also used SYMBOL to support the Commission’s evaluation of different options to tax the financial sector, such as a tax on high-risk banking activities and a tax on financial transactions of banks, to see which options were more aligned to banks’ risk profile and thus would provide best incentive for banks to mitigate risks.

Towards better deposit guarantee schemes: The JRC also contributed to the development of the directive proposal which amends existing European rules on deposit protection. JRC scientists conducted an impact assessment of the proposed changes and of possible criteria to determine individual banks' contributions to the guarantee funds based on their risk profiles.

One key result is the upgrade in coverage from EUR 20 000 to EUR 100 000 which means that 95% of all bank account holders in the EU will get all their savings back if their bank fails. Coverage will also now include small, medium and large companies as well as all currencies.

  • JRC maps help match water supply and demand: An assessment of available water resources, published during the World Water Forum in Marseille, France on 14 March 2012, reveals that large areas in Spain and Eastern Europe have on average less than 200 mm freshwater available every year while the demand for water is three to ten times higher. The report 'Current Water Resources in Europe and Africa - Matching water supply and water demand' shows variations in yearly freshwater generation from 10 mm to over 500 mm for Europe and from less than 0.1 mm to over 500 mm for Africa. The report outlines existing uncertainties and points to further research efforts needed for improved water management.

  • Predicting floods and forest fires: Early warning systems developed and operated by the JRC provide essential information to prepare for floods and forest fires and to improve alerts and measures to limit their consequences.

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) provides relevant information for the protection of forests in Europe against fire. During the forest-fire season, EFFIS issues daily forest fire risk forecasts. If risks are high, national authorities can take timely measures that help prevent forest fires or limit their consequences.

The European Flood Alert System (EFAS) provides essential information to prepare for floods in Europe by complementing the information of national hydrological services with flood forecasting information up to 10 days in advance. The benefit of EFAS is two-fold. First, EFAS provides the European Commission with useful information for the preparation and management of aid during a flood crisis. Second, National Water Authorities can benefit from additional medium-range flood information that might contribute to increased preparedness in an upcoming flood event.

  • Towards cleaner transport: The JRC's Vehicle Emissions Laboratory (VELA) provides scientific support for the development and revision of EU Directives and settlement of the EUR standards. Currently, the JRC is supporting the Commission in the revision of the European procedure for the type-approval of light Duty Vehicles, which will have a strong impact on the automotive industry, the environment and the EU targets on CO2 emissions and energy efficiency in transport. VELA comprises chemical and physical analysis laboratories, and seven major testing facilities capable of conducting emissions tests (including the measurement of evaporative emissions) on a variety of vehicles. These range from motorbikes to passenger cars and large heavy-duty engines.

In addition, the JRC pays special attention to electro mobility. Cooperation with the United States has been strengthened in this area and will lead to the creation of twin laboratories on the Interoperability of Electric Vehicles (EV) and Smart Grids (SG) together with the US Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), both in Europe and the US. The JRC is also currently setting up the European Interoperability Centre to support global standardisation, promoting a common EU/US approach and addressing technologically the interoperability issues between electric vehicles and smart grids.

  • Nuclear stress tests and post-Fukushima support: Following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the JRC provided daily technical updates on the situation. These updates were broadly disseminated and used in the EU Member States. To avoid similar accidents, the European Council subsequently called for a review of the safety of all EU nuclear power plants - the so-called ‘stress tests’. All EU countries that operate nuclear power plants participated in the review, together with Switzerland and Ukraine. The JRC provides the Secretariat for the stress tests and has contributed to the elaboration of the stress tests modalities and peer review methodology. It also participated in the peer review missions to the participating countries.

The JRC's broad nuclear fuel safety competences have been and will be used in support of the Fukushima-Daiichi post-accident analysis, remediation and decommissioning. In this context, re-evaluation of existing Severe Accident works are being reviewed in collaboration with EU national research organisations and new aspects identified.

In addition, the European Commission’s information exchange system for nuclear emergencies EURDEP, managed by the JRC, delivered aggregated data through its website ( In collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the system will expand from European to a world-wide coverage.

  • Safer buildings: Eurocodes are a set of European Standards for the design of buildings and other civil engineering works and construction products. Since 2010, they have replaced all national standards, meaning that public buildings and other civil engineering structures across the EU are now constructed with equal levels of structural safety. The JRC's European Laboratory for Structural Assessment (ELSA) contributed to their development. ELSA used its unique facilities combined with mathematical modelling, to assess buildings and civil engineering structures for risk mitigation under both natural and man-made hazards, such as earthquakes and explosions.

  • Rare earth metals and Europe's energy future: Following the release of a Commission report on critical raw materials in 2010, JRC scientists highlighted in a recent report that five metals, essential for manufacturing low-carbon technologies, show a high risk of shortage and could hamper deployment of low-carbon energy technologies. Reasons for this lie in Europe's dependency on imports, increasing global demand, supply concentration and geopolitical issues. The report recommends actions to prevent shortages and thus allow a smooth implementation of the Commission's Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of low carbon technologies.

  • Science for safe innovation: The JRC supports consumer protection and confidence in many innovative applications and products stemming from one of today's most promising technological developments: Nanotechnology. The first European repository of nanomaterials enables a harmonised risk assessment and the first certified reference material for nanoparticle size analysis, based on industry-sourced nanoparticles, helps ensure the comparability of measurements worldwide. The JRC also proposed an early definition of nanomaterials based on size which became the basis of the recent Commission's definition.

  • Testing for dangerous substances in sports drinks: In 2011, the JRC developed three new analytical methods to detect phthalates which had been used as illegal clouding agents in sports drinks imported from Taiwan. As phtalates are believed to affect reproductive performance and fertility and have been linked to developmental problems with children, they are prohibited in the production of food, and their use in plastic toys and childcare products is restricted in the EU. The Taiwanese Food and Drug Administration published the names of 879 products of more than 300 producers that contained high amounts of phthalates. More than 200 products from 34 producers were exported to 22 countries, among them Germany and the UK, where some products were withdrawn from the market.

The JRC developed and validated three new testing methods that allow the substance to be rapidly and accurately detected. The methods were made freely available on the JRC website, to help those laboratories in the EU and worldwide testing suspected products.

Producers of sports drinks, jelly and fruit pulps typically use products based on palm oil to obtain a cloudy appearance, but in the Taiwanese incident, such products were replaced by two phthalates, which were cheaper.

  • Reducing pollution from industrial and agricultural installations and supporting recycling: The JRC hosts and manages the European Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (EIPPC) Bureau, set up to exchange information between Member States and industry on Best Available Techniques. EIPPC's reference documents, called BREFs, are the main reference documents used by competent authorities in Member States when issuing operating permits for the installations that represent a significant pollution potential in Europe. There are about 50000 of these installations in Europe. There are nearly 40 BREFs already available and the revised version of the waste water from chemical industries techniques is expected to be published in 2012. In addition, the JRC also prepares the "end of waste" technical criteria that determine when a material recovered from waste ceases to be waste and can be dealt with as other products or raw materials, thereby stimulating European recycling markets. Iron, steel and aluminium scrap materials have already been tackled and a second round of technical studies on waste paper, copper and copper alloy scrap, and waste glass (glass cullet) has been concluded. They will be discussed by the European Commission's Technical Adaptation Committee in May. A third group of studies will cover biodegradable waste and waste plastics.

  • Food security is a key requirement for global sustainable development. According to the UN, food insecurity already affects more than 1 billion people. A tenth of this population is at risk of starvation due to natural hazards or man-made crises.

Given the importance of this issue, the JRC organised a major stakeholder conference on 'Scientific support to Food Security and Global Governance' to foster debate and explore how science, technology and innovation could contribute to food for all. The JRC was able to draw on its extensive work in this field ranging from crop monitoring and forecasting in food-insecure regions to assessment of the price volatility of the global food markets.

JRC research shows that most agricultural commodities have experienced rising price volatility, such as maize, soybean, rice and cotton, and that agricultural commodity prices are likely to remain volatile in the foreseeable future. Several factors were identified that drive the volatility of agricultural commodities’ prices. Looking at the development of wheat prices over the last 30 years, most of the price volatility for wheat was closely linked to the volatility of petrol prices and exchange rates. Stocks and a moderate level of speculation appeared to reduce volatility.

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