Leader: Euro plan needs cash to take off

October 10, 2003

Research is a key ingredient of the new Europe now taking shape. The word appears 28 times in the proposed European constitution, while this week the European Commission announced plans for a massive programme of military research alongside the existing civilian Framework programme.

But one piece of the jigsaw refuses to fit into place. The commission wants a European Research Council to fund the continent's top researchers. It would be the apex of research integration much as the euro is for economic policy. But the proposal has surprisingly few friends. Some of the worries are financial. If ERC funding is taken from existing Framework cash, valuable work will be damaged. If it comes from top-slicing national research budgets, the political damage will outweigh the gains. And unless strict peer review is used in allocating the money, the ERC will become another European Union machine for regional subsidies.

Yesterday, an impressive 45 European Nobel prizewinners expressed support for the ERC. Philippe Busquin, research commissioner, is pleased but might be less keen on their point that the ERC will improve research by promoting competition within Europe. This suggests that the ERC would be distributing existing rather than new cash. Some experts have argued that the ERC would need €20-40 billion (£14-28 billion) in its first few years, so this is not an issue that can be fudged.

The argument that the best research should be able to compete for funds on a continental scale is compelling. So is the ERC's unstated aim of preventing top scientists from fulfilling their career ambitions in the US.

Over time, the ERC should become important scientifically, economically and politically, proving that Europe is serious about being a base for innovation and new knowledge. But key questions must be answered before the proposal can be given an unqualified welcome.

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