Leader: Reversing the continental drift

July 22, 2005

Higher education may soon be at the forefront of a unique development in the UK's relationship with the rest of Europe. The future European Research Council's scientific membership was named this week. It has been chosen by a group led by Lord Patten and includes three UK-based academics and many others with close connections to the UK. It may become one European institution in which the UK takes a leading role instead of being a late arrival at somebody else's party. British names have even been whispered as possibilities for its first chief executive.

New figures on European research show the urgent need for the ERC. Too little research is going on in Europe. The European Commission hopes to increase the sums it puts into research, with a proportion allotted on a continent-wide basis with a stress on excellence via the ERC. The aim is to take on the US National Science Foundation at its own game. A good start - and a plus point for the UK presidency of the European Union - would be a guarantee from Westminster that, in contrast to past Framework grants, awards from the ERC will bring enough overhead payments with them to enable universities to accept without losing money.

But the broader problem that the ERC is being set up to tackle is a deep structural one. Under the Commission's plans, the EU should be putting 3 per cent of its gross domestic product into research by 2010. On present trends, the figure will be more like 2.2 per cent, well behind Japan and the US. China will reach the same figure at the same time, starting from a far lower base.

The EU's own research budget is comparable to the spending of a major national government, but it is only a small part of the overall picture.

Some European governments have increased spending, but the private sector is either stagnant or moving backwards as a funder of research. The EU has no effective tool to make companies spend more. The incentives that might persuade them are in the hands of national governments.

Unlike areas such as agriculture, where there are fierce arguments about the way ahead, everyone agrees that more research is an economic necessity.

For Brussels, its international nature also makes research a natural means of enhancing European solidarity. However, European governments regard their universities and research laboratories as national assets to be funded and managed by national rules. The ERC will be a success if it makes both researchers and the people who fund them think about research on a continental scale.

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