Very few items of public expenditure ever double in size. But that is the suggested jump in European Union research spending between the current Framework 6 Programme and Framework 7, which is due to run from 2007 to 2013. Its total budget of E70 billion (£48 billion), which is likely to be approved this week, would be more per year than the current spending of the US National Science Foundation.
What will the taxpayer get for this money? The biggest idea in Framework 7 - Ja European Research Council that will pit the Continent's top researchers against each other in competition for funds - is easy to like. It will allot new money without depriving existing recipients. And in the modern era, a coherent political entity such as the EU needs a research council just as much as it needs a central bank or a justice system. But our interview this week with the EU's Research Commissioner gives few guarantees that Framework 7 will be less maddening for researchers to deal with than its predecessors. So far, Framework's growing importance has not been matched by improved processes.
More important, the programme's aims depend on European industry becoming more serious about research and innovation. It is simple to enthuse universities when money is on offer. Persuading companies to spend more and innovate faster is far trickier. The European Commission's research budget must be used to persuade laggards that more research spending is worthwhile, especially across borders. The 2002 target of 3 per cent of EU gross domestic product going into research by 2010 is most unlikely to be achieved. The priority is to work towards achieving US or Japanese levels of spending over the coming decade. That will involve using European money to demonstrate clear successes that create demand for more research nationally as well as by the EU.