European Union funding for pure scientific research should be at least doubled in the next budget cycle, according to the League of European Research Universities (Leru).
The alliance of 22 prominent European research-intensive universities, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, made the call in its recommendations on the EU's Eighth Framework Programme for Research.
The programme will set out the EU's research spending priorities from 2013 to 2020.
The report, published last week, acknowledges the importance of collaborative "top-down" research to address challenges such as global warming and energy security. But it says the budget of the European Research Council, which was launched at the start of the current EU budget cycle in 2007 to fund basic research, should be "significantly increased" in order to prevent European research from falling behind competitors in the US and elsewhere.
"Europe is quickly running out of chances and time to improve its position. If it does not act vigorously and swiftly it will be impossible to even keep its current position," Leru warns.
Stijn Delauré, EU policy adviser at the Catholic University of Leuven and main author of the Leru response, said the EU should take advantage of the respect the ERC has built in both the academy and industry since it was launched.
He said its budget of £7.5 billion in the current cycle should be at least doubled to improve the current success rate for applicants from one in 10 to one in three.
"We have a lot of excellent researchers working overseas who we want back," Dr Delauré said. "The current ERC is a perfect system of evaluating grants. But the success rate is too low and it discourages applications."
The report calls for simpler eligibility criteria, reporting and audit requirements for ERC grants, and welcomes the European Commission's recent communication on simplifying research funding.
Leru says the current payment system, which requires every cost incurred by every project to be accounted for, implied "a level of mistrust which is inappropriate for top-level research professionals".
"If the ERC is to compete with institutions such as the National Science Foundation in the US, it needs to impose fewer administrative burdens on frontier research scientists," it adds.
But Dr Delauré also warned against a rush to output-based funding because it could discourage researchers from taking risks.
He said the best system would see institutions periodically re-certified as "highly trusted", after which they would be left to administer their own researchers' grants.
Jack Metthey, director of the ERC executive agency, said the council had been committed to minimising red tape since its inception.
"While we are still learning, the ERC is already at the level of the NSF when it comes to certain administrative aspects," he said.
Meanwhile, the European Science Foundation has announced plans to merge its governing council with Eurohorcs, the association of European heads of research councils. ESF members include research funders and practitioners from 30 countries, including all seven UK research councils. The provisional name for the merged body is the European Research Organisation.