EU launches drive for research champions

March 9, 2007

Research council expected to raise Europe's game in innovation, writes Lars Rugaard

The European Union's ambitious European Research Council was launched last week with the aim of creating what its ruling committee called the "Champions' League of researchers".

The ERC, armed with a budget of €7 billion (£4.8 billion) from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme, intends to foster innovation by stimulating healthy competition between researchers, thus improving the EU's research and economic performance.

During the launch conference in Berlin, Fotis Kafatos of Imperial College London, the ERC president, outlined the council's two-pronged strategy of supporting both early-career researchers and advanced investigators working on the frontiers of science.

A call for grant applications had been issued, and the ERC's ruling scientific council was setting up peer-review panels to assess applications, he said.

Professor Kafatos emphasised that the ERC was autonomous and would be free of any political guidance and interference. This was underlined by Janez Potonik, the EU Research Commissioner, who said the council was "independent of political agendas, regardless of whether that be the Commission, member states or the European Parliament".

But Mr Potonik told The Times Higher that he considered it vital that research efforts should address the major climatic and other environmental challenges facing the planet.

Professor Kafatos said the ERC would be interdisciplinary. The peer-review panels being set up would reflect expertise in many academic and scientific areas, he said. The council's aim was to invest in excellence, not in particular research areas, he added.

The Berlin conference established that the ERC's relationship with existing research would be a mixture of competition and co-operation. Delegates from universities and research institutions said the council's plan to limit the share of the grants for overheads - such as administration and equipment costs - to 20 per cent could be a problem, especially for projects that depended on expensive equipment.

Wendy Hall of Southampton University, a British member of the ERC scientific council, admitted that "we will have to look into the size of the overheads".

Professor Hall also stressed that the ERC would have to find a solid relationship with existing research institutions and universities.

Dieter Imboden, professor of environmental physics at ETH Zurich, said the ERC grants could provide possibilities for young researchers in old-fashioned organisations and institutions "where the professor is close to God and there is a void below".

* Janez Potonik, the EU's Research Commissioner, has asked the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies for advice on improving the ethical assessment of human embryonic stem-cell research during EU-funding applications, writes Keith Nuthall.

Each proposal for FP7 funding will receive an ethical review, but Mr Potonik said he wanted the advice of the group, which is appointed by the Commission, on "improving the quality, the scrutiny, the accuracy and the transparency of the procedure".

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