Enlarged EU good for science

Just 1 year after 10 new members joined, scientists are reporting signs of benefit

Andrew Scott(as@andrewscottweb.co.uk)
May 2, 2005

Membership of the European Union has already improved the status of science among the 10 countries that joined the bloc last May, researchers and officials have told The Scientist.

"We have witnessed a change of quality in Estonian science, and probably in other Baltic states as well," Izold Pustylnik, vice chairman of the Estonian section of Euroscience, told The Scientist. He cited the more active involvement of scientists from the new member countries in EU science structures as one of a variety of improvements that are visible within just one year.

EU membership seems to be raising awareness of the opportunities for collaboration. For example, Edvard Kobal, director of the Slovenian Science Foundation, told The Scientist that researchers from the older member states are now definitely more interested in including Slovenian groups in joint research projects.

In some aspects of funding, however, little immediate impact has occurred, because the new member states had been entitled to apply for EU research funds (currently the Sixth Framework Programme) for several years prior to formal membership. This is one reason why several researchers contacted by The Scientist reported "little change," but a smooth transition.

But one very significant alteration to the funding situation is that science in the new member states can now benefit from access to the European Union's "structural funds," which are reserved for full members.

"Estonian science is in better shape in the EU," Andres Metspalu of the Estonian Biocentre told The Scientist. "The structural funds are allowing us to build up the infrastructure, in terms of laboratory space, equipment [and], centers of excellence."

Metspalu reports that Estonian research groups and small- to medium-sized enterprises are also finding they are more readily invited to become part of large-scale collaborative European projects, while scientists and students from other member states are more interested in visiting Estonia.

Similar views come from Lithuania. "The structural funds [offer] a real possibility to renovate our scientific equipment," Valdas Laurinavicius, director of the Lithuanian Institute of Biochemistry told The Scientist. He reported that the weak scientific base in his country meant the main challenge for Lithuanian scientists in the context of the European Union was to persuade others of Lithuanians' ability to perform and manage EU-funded projects.

One issue that many researchers in the new member states have been concerned about is the plan to set up a European Research Council (ERC)_ with a big slice of the budget for the forthcoming Seventh Framework Programme. There have been worries that the declared focus on excellence might cause the ERC funding to be channelled to richer countries, such as Britain, Germany, and France, which have the strongest track records in international research. This concern, however, may be easing somewhat.

Vaclav Paces, recently elected chair of the Czech Academy of Sciences, has voiced concerns about the ERC in the past, but he told The Scientist he does accept that the ERC should be focused on supporting only the best projects on merit rather than any notion of equal shares. "Countries like the Czech Republic must reorganize their own research by supporting the best people and teams to become competitive," he said. "Another [option] is to collaborate with the best European teams and apply together for ERC support."

One familiar complaint does continues to surface, however, as scientists reflect on their experiences of EU membership so far. It was voiced by Vaclav Paces in a simple plea: "We would welcome less bureaucracy."