Brussels, 20 Feb 2003
Leading life scientists meeting in Paris to discuss the possible creation of a European research council (ERC) reached a consensus on certain key issues, but left a number of questions unanswered.
The discussion was held at the UNESCO headquarters on 19 February, and brought together Nobel Prize winners, heads of research organisations and scientists from across Europe, who were urged by organisers to avoid politeness and speak their minds on the issue.
Professor Frank Gannon, Executive Director of the event co-host, the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), said in his introductions: 'We are engaged in a debate that cannot go on for ever.' In the context of the EU's Lisbon goals on competitiveness, Professor Gannon added that: 'If, by 2004 we have no concrete plans for an ERC in place, it may well be too late.'
Based on issues raised during presentations and panel discussions, an open debate took place in which participants tried to agree on fundamental principles and a basic structure for the proposed body.
One issue upon which all were agreed was the need for any ERC to focus its efforts and resources on supporting basic, or investigator led research. Many felt that the long term nature of fundamental research, along with its lack of financial guarantees, meant that industry would be reluctant to provide the necessary funding, and an ERC was an ideal candidate to fill the gap.
As Professor Andrea Ballabio, Director of the Telethon institute of genetics and medicine, observed: 'Within the life sciences, basic research provides the basis for the majority of commercial spin-offs, and investment is therefore essential.'
Another recurrent theme was of an ERC providing funds to improve European research infrastructures. The need for action was highlighted with reference to a recent study, which found that of the world's top 20 facilities in the field of life sciences, only two were located in Europe.
Included alongside physical infrastructures were the infrastructures of knowledge in Europe. Nobel Laureate Professor John Sulston gave the example of the human genome project, where only the intervention of a UK charity, the Wellcome Trust, ensured that the final sequences were freely available to all scientists. 'EU research must act as a counterweight to that of the US, and particularly that of US corporations,' he said.
On certain fundamental issues, however, delegates were unable to reach an agreement. The question of whether the ERC should provide competition to national research councils was one example. Professor Jean-Patrick Connerade, President of Euroscience, argued that the existence of competition between scientists and funding bodies was the key to achieving excellence in research. Others argued that if the ERC sought to compete with national councils, and that the idea would never receive the backing required to make it a reality.
Questions surrounding the funding of an ERC were the most polarising. A number of contributors argued that the ERC's budget must be based on new funding, rather than the reallocation of existing resources, as part of the goal of raising European investment in research to three per cent of GDP.
Professor Rolf Tarrach, President of Spain's Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, didn't agree. He described such a position as an 'unrealistic expectation', and argued that the primary goal should be to create the ERC, and that fresh funds would only materialise once the organisation had proved its worth.
While Professor Tarrach felt that a realistic annual ERC budget would be around 2 billion euro, based on EU and national funding, Nobel Laureate Professor Rolf Zinkernagel said: 'The budget needs to be between 20 and 40 billion euro a year in order to have an impact on European science.'
Despite such differences of opinion, the organisers of the meeting were pleased that areas of consensus had been identified, and welcomed the fact that those present had all agreed that the idea of an ERC was a good one.
A document will be produced containing the contributions of all involved in the event, and a follow up meeting was proposed. Professor Gannon closed by urging participants to reflect on the issues raised and begin the process of defining the next steps towards creating an ERC.