Europe Seeks Greater Creativity in Basic Research

By Blau, John | Research-Technology Management, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Europe Seeks Greater Creativity in Basic Research

Blau, John, Research-Technology Management

Despite tough talks over money and structure, the European Commission is pushing ahead with its plans to create a European Research Council (ERC) modeled on the National Science Foundation in the United States. The Brussels governmental body has selected five high-profile figures from the European scientific community to appoint members of the planned scientific council ahead of a final parliamentary decision on its funding and administration next year.

The Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is proposing, among other measures, a major shake-up of science funding that would grant money for basic research on the basis of excellence without any obligations to transnational collaboration--a hallmark of previous research framework programs. The recommendations, which include more than doubling the budget of the new five-year framework program--from 75 billion [euro] a year to 10 billion [euro] a year--and cutting red tape, echo demands being made by many scientists themselves.

For years, Europe's scientific community has warned that unless the E.U. streamlines its funding process, it risks losing top scientists to other countries, notably the U.S. where the investment process is seen as being more efficient. Scientists have complained that the current 6th Framework Program (FP6) and previous framework programs have largely ignored basic research and focused instead on product-oriented research and cooperation across Europe--often with social, political or economic strings attached. Many maintain that if Europe is to increase the competitiveness of its research base, the E.U. should fund individual researchers and groups based only on the quality of their research.

The 7th Framework Program (FP7)--to run from 2007 to 2013--aims to address scientists' concerns about basic research with the creation of the ERC. Key objectives of the new framework program--in addition to setting up the ERC--include creating European centers of excellence and launching technology initiatives in industrial fields of growth.

How ERC will Differ

Under the Commission's plan, ERC will be an independent body run by a group of appointed scientists who will decide which projects to fund, instead of having civil servants at the Commission make these decisions. "We want to be clear that it's not the Commission that is deciding but the scientific community itself," said newly appointed Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, in a statement.

The overarching goal, according to a Commission spokeswoman, is to foster "creativity in basic research" and not stifle it by imposing a predetermined set of priorities as is the case today. Under the current system, the E.U. predefines a set of fixed priorities and then funds projects that fit within them. Researchers who want E.U. funding are expected to create consortia of European or international research centers.

By contrast, the ERC aims to support research conducted by individual researchers or teams competing for funding at a European level. It is a completely different approach: Researchers propose projects on their own initiative, without thematic constraints, in areas of their choice. Projects are selected, without any obligation for transnational collaboration, on the basis of their scientific excellence, as assessed through a process of peer review.

Among the main principles of the scientific council: Supported research should be truly "investigator-driven" and "bottom-up"; individual grants should be large enough to attract the best scientists and teams from around Europe; lean management procedures should be the rule, with minimal administrative requirements.

Science and Soccer

As Commissioner Potocnik views the situation, individual research teams often come up with good ideas and should be given the opportunity to explore them. "That's why we believe funding should be based on excellence and not other considerations," he said.

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