Leader: Europe needs research council to take on US

June 14, 2002

The European Union has always realised that research is a contributor to economic success and a machine for creating a community spirit. But its research spending has been largely confined to the rather functional Framework programmes, driven by industrial and social needs.

Now the European Science Foundation is preparing plans for a European Research Council that would for the first time award funds for basic research within the EU and beyond. It would get money from national governments and might exist in the plural, with European research councils in medicine, physical sciences and others.

The European Commission is cautious about the ERC because it would not control it. But in time it would find that a Europe-wide funder would add to its credibility rather than diminish it. A more serious problem is that national governments called on to fund the ERC are likely to pay for it by top-slicing their existing science budgets.

High-level research exists on a world stage and it is anomalous for Europe to have no machinery for funding it beyond the national level. The budget increases won by the National Institutes of Health in the US threaten to open a wide gap in biomedical spending: the ERC might help to close it. National governments should build up a body such as the ERC, not regard it as a competitor for resources.

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