Science minister John Battle has mounted a firm defence of a European council agreement to cut research spending, writes Tony Tysome.
He told The THES this week that the Council of Research Ministers' settlement on a Fifth Framework Programme budget of Ecu 14 billion (about Pounds 10 billion) - a cut of about 2 per cent in real terms compared with the Fourth Framework budget - was a positive result after "long and hard negotiations".
The minister also warned the European Commission - whose research, education and training spokeswoman, Edith Cresson, condemned the agreement as "a dark day for European research" - that some member states were poised to exploit any disagreement over the programme.
Although the "common position" agreed by the council puts the programme on target, deadlock is still possible as the European parliament must consider it next month, and any proposed amendments will go back to the council in June.
Mr Battle, who chaired the council meeting, said: "The commission has to get serious about whether it wants a Fifth Framework or not. It is not an arbitrary question, because there has to be some determination to ensure it continues. There is nothing some member states would like to see more than the end of the framework programme."
Commission officials have said that there is now such a big difference in the council's agreed budget and that sought by the European parliament that an "almost inevitable" conciliation process could drag on for nine months or more.
Mr Battle agreed that conciliation was likely, but said the framework timetable would not be held up because the council's agreement had secured a firm foundation for negotiations. Nevertheless, he said, he expected there to be arguments over details such as the cost of administration, which runs to 8 per cent of the budget.
Although a budget compromise is expected, Mr Battle warned the commission that it must be flexible. "If there is not an agreement, they will have to think seriously about the fact that there will be a gap in the research programme, which will mean some scientists have to be laid off," he said.