Tony Tysome and Martin Ince (bottom) report on the work of the 'laboratory of Europe'
IT IS as old as the European Commission; it takes up around Ecu 1 billion (Pounds 666 million) in European research funding - 7 per cent of the proposed Fifth Framework Programme budget; it employs 1,700 scientists and support staff in seven institutes in five member states; and it describes itself boldly as "the Laboratory of Europe".
But what exactly does the Joint Research Centre do? And is it worth the cost? These are questions British vice-chancellors have been asking Euro-ministers who are battling over the size of the Fifth Framework cashpot.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals pulled no punches over its view of the JRC in its response to the European Union's policy position on the Fifth Framework. It described the continued prominence of the JRC within FP5 as "a matter of extreme concern", adding: "We can see no justification for the top-sliced funding provided to the JRC. We note that it has not met its targets for reducing its dependency on direct funding."
The CVCP points out that in 1987 it was proposed that the JRC should be only 60 per cent direct-funded by 1991 and 50 per cent by the year 2000, yet today the figure is still around 74 per cent. Funding of the JRC should depend on its winning research contracts in open competition, the committee said.
Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University and a member of the working group that prepared the CVCP's policy position on FP5, added that accountability of the JRC was also at issue.
"We would like to see a clearer audit of the JRC's activities in terms of an evaluation of its output in the same way that the British research councils monitor the research they fund," he said.
Hugh Richardson, the JRC's deputy director, is angered by such arguments. In the first place, he says, the JRC is regularly and intensively evaluated by a team of independent experts, who recently gave the centre a clean bill of health and concluded its work was "useful and interesting".
Second, the JRC has steadily increased the amount of income it wins in the market, to a level of around Ecus 50 million per year (compared with Framework funding of around Ecu 250 million per year). It is a lot of money but it is nowhere near enough to keep the JRC going.
"It is not like sponsoring research in universities," Mr Richardson said. "We have huge installations like linear accelerators, earthquake simulation equipment, cyclotrons and big nuclear laboratories for research into manmade radioactive elements. We are seven institutes in five different member states with staff from all member states. As a result there is always room for some economy but there is also a critical mass."
The proposed Fifth Framework budget of Ecu 14 billion, of which Ecu 969 million has been earmarked for the JRC (around 15 per cent lower than under FP4), would leave funding for the centre some way short of that critical mass, he has warned.
"If you have all these facilities you can only cut costs so much, and then you have to start asking what do we close? When you are running big research facilities like ours just keeping them alive costs a huge amount: actually doing something with them is the incremental cost. If your budget is cut - say you get 20 per cent less - that reduction is the money you needed to actually do some research. The rest is needed just to keep the cooling water flowing and the installations safe," he said.
This is unlikely to worry the CVCP or Euro ministers from France and Germany who argued for an even smaller FP5 budget. Professor Floud said: "I do not know what the real impact of the cut would be on their budget, but as far as we are concerned if there are budget constraints the most valuable aspects of Framework 5 are those other than the JRC."
Mr Richardson believes this outlook is partly the result of a general ignorance about the work of the JRC, but admits the centre has an image problem. "We need to be open to criticism," he says. The JRC has already made significant reductions in its level of activity in nuclear research, but this still makes up a large part of its work.
Most of the nuclear work is now concerned with safety in using, keeping track of, transporting and disposing of, nuclear material. The institutes are also working on models predicting what might happen in an emergency and how nuclear pollution might be dispersed.
"You need to know how these things behave. We want to prevent another Chernobyl disaster. But if it happens again, people will be very grateful there is a JRC," Mr Richardson said.
The JRC, under its new director general Herbert Allgeier, is proposing a 10 per cent increase in its non-nuclear work. It is involved in building research networks to compare and validate findings on BSE, and carrying out research into the biocompatibility of materials in artificial body parts such as hip replacements and false teeth. Through a worldwide network of satellites, ground stations, forest fieldworkers and scientists, the JRC's Trees and Fire project can identify forest fires and tropical areas under threat from deforestation.
Collaboration is the key to what the JRC is able to achieve, Mr Richardson says, and he would welcome closer work with more universities.
THE JRC'S SEVEN INSTITUTES
The Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements, Geel, Belgium
The Institute for Transuranium Elements, Karlsruhe, Germany
The Institute for Advanced Materials, Petten, the Netherlands, and Ispra, Italy
The Space Applications Institute, Ispra
The Institute for Systems, Informatics and Safety, Ispra
The Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Seville, Spain