Blue-skies plan wins EU backing

October 25, 2002

Leading figures in science have given broad backing to proposals to create a transcontinental European Research Council.

A majority of delegates at a meeting in Copenhagen this month agreed that such a body would focus on funding fundamental research rather than the applied work backed by the European Commission's existing Framework programme.

But significant disagreements remain as to the nature of the ERC, with the UK - who sent a delegation of research council chief executives and other leading figures - believed to favour a modest start within the Framework programme.

Others, including Keith Pavitt, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University, want a body that could compete with existing national programmes to fund the best science.

The conference's Danish organisers concluded that: "A majority of the interventions (from delegates) found that the time had come to begin setting up an ERC that will fund and coordinate basic research at European level."

There was consensus at the conference that the ERC should be a funding rather than advisory body covering all fields of science, engineering, humanities and social sciences.

Its funding should come from the European Union, national governments and possibly private sources, with "fresh money" in the long term rather than reallocated funds. It would be autonomous in its operations and be run by respected scientists.

Delegates argued that it should not aim to strengthen research capacity in weaker parts of the European research area.

Hans Wigzell, vice-chancellor of the Karolinska Institute and chief scientific adviser to the Swedish government, said he was hopeful that within the new five-year Framework programme period, a nascent ERC might start by helping scientists move around Europe more easily.

"Several countries were reluctant to give away a slice of national research money for the creation of an ERC," he said.

Representatives of the six UK research councils, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the Royal Society and the British Academy will meet with their continental counterparts to discuss the issue at the forthcoming European Science Foundation's annual general meeting in November.

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