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EU proposes science shake-up

Plan includes more money and basic science funding based on excellence, not politics

By | June 16, 2004

The European Union should double its annual research budget, cut red tape, and decide who gets basic research funding purely on the basis of excellence, not political agendas, the European Commission said today (June 16).

Those recommendations, which echo the demands often made by scientists themselves, were proposed by research commissioner Philippe Busquin and others in a new document designed to trigger discussions in preparation for the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which will run from 2007 to 2013.

"The debate on the future of research in Europe has been launched," Busquin said. "Scientific research and technological development are key to the future of Europe because they generate more than half of economic growth and determine Europe's political weight on the international scene."

The commission's proposals would mean a major overhaul of aspects of the EU research funding system. Its top line is a doubling of funding to an average of €10 billion a year for the duration of FP7.

These funds should be devoted to six major objectives, the commission said. Those objectives include the creation of European centers of excellence, the launching of technology initiatives in industrial fields of growth, and the creation of a European "agency" to support European basic research teams.

For Europe's basic researchers, the commission's talk of a science funding agency like the much discussed concept of a European Research Council (ERC), will be particularly interesting.

The idea is to make the ERC a reality, Busquin's chief spokesman Fabio Fabbi told The Scientist, "by launching an agency or foundation that would focus on promoting creativity in basic research, not stifling it by imposing a predetermined set of priorities, like happens now."

In the current system, the European Union predefines a set of fixed priorities, and then funds projects that fit within them. Researchers who want EU funding are also expected to create consortia of European or international research centers.

"In basic research, it doesn't work this way," Fabbi said. "Individual research teams can come up with very good ideas, and they should be given the possibility to further develop these ideas. That's why the idea is that funding should be based on excellence, not respond to other considerations."

"We are really trying to reward excellence," Fabbi said. "We like to think that we are heading in the right direction."

European Science Foundation chief executive, Bertil Andersson, an early proponent of a European Research Council, welcomed the commission's proposals.

 

"I'm a believer that we need a 'champion's league' not only in soccer, but in science, where the best researchers can compete with each other. I think that would be another stimulation in the system… and a benchmark for the European universities, which we don't have like they have in the United States," Andersson told The Scientist.

 

It could make a significant impact, Andersson added. "But it has to be arranged in a way that [the scientific equivalents of] Manchester United and Real Madrid want to play in the champion's league. If they don't want to play because it's too cumbersome... or too bureaucratic, then it's going to be a failure. So it's very important that it's done right and I think the commission's aware of that."

 

The commission has been previewing these ideas for some time, notably during a conference in Dublin earlier this year. Tim Hunt from Cancer Research UK, who attended that meeting, told The Scientist recently, "My impression is that the commission is still strongly committed to setting up the ERC based on excellence, peer review, and dedicated to basic science."

Turning that perceived commitment into concrete change will be no mean feat. The next steps include policy debates within EU institutions and a consultation with members of the research community. In 2005, the commission will present more concrete proposals for FP7. The European Parliament will have its input during 2005, after which the representatives of member states will make a final decision, some time in 2006.

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