Final frontier requires pioneering solutions

January 16, 2004

Will science win or lose? The UK must decide where it stands on the future of European policy, says Ian Halliday

Across Europe there is an acceptance that a knowledge-based economy, driven by innovation, is the correct goal for policy. During 2004, the European Commission will debate and decide, with national governments, how it intends to help Europe to achieve this goal.

Proposals for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will be of particular interest to the academic community. There are clear signals for major changes in emphasis. The UK government and its academic community need to decide whether they collectively approve of the proposed changes.

The first clear change will be an increased emphasis on basic research, in the context of an increasing budget. Under the Danish presidency, an expert group was set up to consider the role of a potential European research council. The consensus seems to be that there is a need for a funding agency, at arm's length from the commission, to widen the competitive playing field for European scientists. The challenge is to achieve such competition without drowning in bureaucracy and low success rates. The proposed funding rate is €2 billion (£1.4 billion) a year - roughly half the US National Science Foundation's funding rate.

Within the context of Europe there is a perceived need for better coordination of expensive research facilities. Such facilities are rather widely defined: they might be social science databases or accelerators for biologists. One problem is that smaller countries cannot afford to purchase facilities of this size. As a result, European scientists' access is restricted by nation not by ability, lowering competitive efficiency.

Another problem is the difficulty of planning across countries: inevitably, duplication occurs. A recent US Department of Energy plan, "Facilities for the future of science", has no European analogue, although Germany has carried out an equivalent study and the UK has a roadmap. These plans address much smaller, fragmented European national budgets. Some science areas, where Europe has been well organised, such as particle physics through Cern, have taken clear global leads. Can this model be generalised to other areas?

Space exploration, both manned and unmanned, has a much higher profile and budget in the other major European countries. There is a clear proposal that this technology, whether to deliver astronomy, environmental data, global positioning, telecoms or military edge, is a strategic priority for Europe and therefore should be supported at the European level. The European Space Agency already plays a central, coordinating role. The proposal is that part of its budget should come from the EC, not just directly from the European nations. How will this affect the manned-to-unmanned ratio of spend? Will science gain or lose?

The EC sees dynamic, entrepreneurial universities in the UK model as important actors in developing knowledge-based economies. Through workshops in the run-up to a conference this April in Liège, it is articulating the questions and challenges for the university sector in Europe. The thrust of its argument is very much aligned with the UK agenda as proposed by a variety of Department of Trade and Industry and Treasury reports.

One crucial underlying debate is how to give universities managerial and financial freedom. This is not unconnected with the UK fees debate. A potential target would be to get the EC to pay full economic costs as a partial means to this end, certainly within the UK.

How will the UK influence these decisions? Formally this will be done through negotiations at Council of Ministers meetings. For example, Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, will be involved in discussions on the financial perspectives for FP7. The research councils and other organisations will be consulted, and many individuals will also be approached formally and informally. For example, Sir John Taylor was on the European research council expert group. Graham Davies, head of the School of Engineering at Birmingham University, and I sit on the European Research Advisory Board. There is a suspicion that all these routes for influence could be made more coherent; although this is tempered by feedback from the EC that the UK is remarkably effective.

In conclusion, on a timescale of a year, major decisions will be taken on the future of European science and universities. These will affect most UK scientists. The outline proposals, themselves the results of much political pressure and discussion, are in effect on the table.

Ian Halliday is chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

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