Europe slates UK funding bias

April 4, 2003

Britain and Europe are split over how best to fund research, with the UK pursuing greater selectivity and the Europeans claiming that this will leave non-research institutions stripped of academic freedom, a conference heard.

Delegates to the fourth European University Association meeting, held at the University of Bristol last week, agreed that research across the European Research Area must be located in higher education institutions rather than in specialist research institutes.

They agreed that Britain was the pre-eminent role model in terms of selectively funding and successfully embedding top-quality research in universities.

But both Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, and Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, sparked controversy when they said that other European countries needed to be more selective in funding research. This, as in the UK, could result in some universities becoming more or less inactive in research.

Sir David said: "The mission does not have to be research for all universities." Professor Thomas said: "Financial resources should not be spread thinly so everyone can say they are doing a bit of research. It is not consonant with the way we do things in the 21st century."

Jose Mariano Gago, Portugal's former minister of science and technology, said this would detract from the wider aim of a knowledge society. By removing research activity from some universities, their ability to create and diffuse knowledge would be jeopardised, he said.

Professor Gago said: "Research is at the core of autonomy, this guarantees academic freedom. Any restriction on freedom cannot be accepted."

Attracting new students and reversing the brain drain to the US was imperative, he said. He estimated that 500,000 new researchers were needed across Europe and argued that research located in many universities was central to recruitment.

There was agreement among delegates on the need for greater mobility, networking and public engagement in research.

Sir David pointed out how US societies, such as the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society, and the meetings they held were used as "massive communications channels". He said: "They take this for granted, but we haven't quite cracked it."

Professor Gago welcomed British efforts to engage the public in aspects of research, such as the debate surrounding genetically modified organisms, and he said this could entice more people into research.

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