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ERC scientific council announced

Amid concern about funding, Europe names group to oversee European Research Council

By | July 19, 2005

European scientists have welcomed the announcement yesterday (July 18) of the first members of the scientific council of the European Research Council (ERC), a new science funding body due to begin operations in 2007.

Leading researchers told The Scientist that the announcement was an important step in improving the provision of funds for science, but some expressed fears for the future of the council in light of troubled negotiations over EU spending.

The main tasks of the 22 members of the scientific council will be to oversee the broad scientific strategy of the ERC and to ensure that the best research projects get funding by a competitive peer review, said Antonia Mochan, spokesperson of the European research commission.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the former president of EUROHORCs (European Heads of Research Councils), and one of the many scientists who lobbied for the creation of an ERC, had strong praise for the members of the new scientific council.

"The European Commission has named a number of outstanding scientists for the scientific council of the ERC," he told The Scientist. "I hope that with their influence it will be possible to meet the high expectations scientists have for the council."

Helga Nowotny, the head of the European Research Advisory Board, who has been appointed to the ERC scientific council, said the 22 named scientists reflected the full scope of European research. "It is a well-balanced group of persons with very good scientific credentials and with complementary backgrounds and experience," she told The Scientist.

Frank Gannon, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, which helped coordinate a campaign by 50 science organizations to have a European research council established, applauded the European Commission for accepting the scientific community's demand for an independent funding mechanism to encourage and support research.

"I'm delighted that commission has been so willing to listen to the scientists," Gannon told The Scientist. "Really exciting cutting research needs special attention in Europe. The ERC will make research better in Europe, encourage scientists, and have a positive impact on the economy."

The committee that chose the scientific council was independent, made up of scientists, and chaired by Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, and now Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle upon Tyne universities.

Seven life scientists were appointed to the ERC scientific council, including Claudio Bordignon from the San Raffaele Institute in Milan, Italy; Carl-Henrik Heldin from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Uppsala, Sweden; Fotis C. Kafatos from Imperial College in London, England; Oscar Marin Parra from the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, Spain; Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard from the Max-Planck-Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany; Leena Peltonen-Palotie from the University of Helsinki, Finland; and Rolf Zinkernagel from the Institute of Experimental Immunology, University Hospital Zürich, Switzerland.

However, scientists have reiterated their fears that the ERC might not be able to carry out its mission if talks to secure a doubling of the EU research budget fail. A Competitiveness Council discussed the budget for research at an informal meeting in Cardiff on July 11.

"Unless there is more money in the system, there will be cuts," Gannon said. "We hope that the cuts do not fall on the ERC. There is a general acceptance that the budget of the ERC should not be reduced dramatically. There is an awareness that giving substantial support to basic research at a European level is vital for the future of Europe." His sentiments were echoed by Nowotny and Winnacker.

Gannon said that in order to be effective, the ERC would need a budget of €1.5-2 billion a year to fund research proposals. He said the scientific council would have to decide whether the ERC has been allotted enough money or not to carry out its mission when its budget is finally announced.

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