Brussels, 25 Feb 2004
Speaking at a meeting to debate the creation of a European Research Council (ERC), the Director-General of the Commission's Research DG, Achilleas Mitsos, expressed his support for improving the quality of basic research in Europe, but described an ERC as a means, not an end.
Dr Mitsos was invited to the international meeting of scientists and policy makers in Brussels on 24 February to present the Commission's view on establishing an ERC. He outlined several preconditions for giving more support to basic research, such as stimulating competition at European level, science driven priority setting, and excellence as the exclusive criteria for funding. However, he said that he would not try to predict what such a body should look like, but would instead focus on how basic research could be improved.
'The ERC itself is not the objective, it is the means - perhaps the indispensable means, but not the objective. Europe needs a system to promote basic scientific excellence based on scientific criteria, and if we focus on that we will identify the organisation that is needed,' said Dr Mitsos.
Dr Mitsos pointed to a recent communication on basic research as evidence of the Commission's willingness to promote a political debate on the issue. He also pointed out that the Commission's vision of the EU budget from 2007 to 2013 sees fundamental research as one of five central axes of a new EU research programme.
'Under the financial perspectives proposed by the Commission, research is by far the biggest winner, with a huge budget increase. [...] We are standing on the edge of a major revolution of how the Commission views research policy,' said Dr Mitsos, adding that the full vision would be outlined in a major communication in May.
Among many of the other delegates at the meeting, however, the specific desire to see an ERC created was more evident. Vice chair of the ERC Expert Group, Mogens Flensted-Jensen, presented the group's final report, calling for an ERC to be established and operational by 2007, with an annual budget of two billion euro after three to five years of work.
As a first step, Mr Flensted-Jensen called for the creation of 'A scientific implementation committee, made up of eminent researchers and research managers with a clear understanding of the policy process, to advise on the creation of an ERC.' The expert group's findings, he said, are based on extensive consultations with stakeholders, but he did express concern that the views of industry may not have been fully taken into account.
Presenting the business community's perspective at the meeting was Horst Soboll, Director of research policy at DaimlerChrysler. He said that industry is positive about an instrument to support basic research, but that it has 'major doubts' over the current process of implementation.
'The EU needs better basic research, but this is not sufficient on its own, as it is just one link in the innovation chain. [...] The real gap between the EU and the US is not in the creation of knowledge itself, but in the exploitation and implementation of that knowledge,' he argued. Mr Soboll added that the EU does not need yet another 'committee', and proposed that new money for basic research could be distributed through existing instruments.
However, two other speakers at the meeting directly challenged this view. German MEP Rolf Linkohr told delegates: 'We don't want a European agency approach, which would be virtually run by accountants, we need flexibility for basic research. [...] If the ERC falls under the Framework Programmes, you will have to follow all the rules of the Framework Programmes. Better to leave decisions to the scientists and avoid the rules of accountants.'
Euroscience board member Peter Tindemans agreed, saying: 'The ERC should not be an EU agency or a political body, it would be too management heavy. The role of its sponsors, i.e. the EU, national governments and research councils, should be to define its mission, establish a broad policy framework, and provide accountability for the public funds spent be the ERC.' Mr Tindemans finished by urging delegates not to allow the ERC debate to descend into a political discussion 'from which it may never emerge'.
According to Dr Mitsos, however, establishing an ERC is a political matter. 'We are talking about a political decision that has to be taken. It will be facilitated if there is a consensus within the scientific community, but this is primarily a political process.'
In summing up, former Portuguese Minister for Science and Technology, José Mariano Gago, urged the scientific community to find a consensus that represents all scientific disciplines, the most and least advanced scientific nations, and the views of academia and industry.
'We must now campaign at EU and national level. The debate still seems to be in infancy, and the challenge now is to make policy makers across Europe aware of this issue,' he concluded.