Martin Ince

August 20, 2004

Europe's answer to the AAAS could be just the boost scientists need - let's just hope it has something to show off

As European commissioner in charge of research, Slovenian economist Janez Potocnik will spend the next few years of his life getting to know the conference centres and top hotels of Europe's capital cities.

He will start the process next week with a visit to Sweden that might tell him something genuinely useful about the job he has taken on. Stockholm will be the site of the inaugural EuroScience Open Forum, an all-Europe science conference that the European Commission hopes will be the first of many.

The thinking behind this event encapsulates much of what is wrong about Europe. Everyone concerned says that Europe has to have something like EuroScience because the US already has the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, just as the argument for the planned European Research Council is that the US already has the National Science Foundation. The habit of creating something - including a currency - because the US has one has been a persistent motif of postwar Europe.

Sometimes it works well, as with the European Space Agency. In other fields, such as information technology, the decisions have been less inspired.

In the case of EuroScience, the initial idea may well be the right one. One sign in its favour is that the suggestion came from a free-standing group of scientists, mainly Swedish, and not from a committee in Brussels. While some official cash has gone into it, the organisers would be foolish to let it become too commission friendly. The AAAS has been close to many US administrations but has never been afraid to annoy them, for example by high-profile campaigning on science and human rights. The AAAS is also long established and prosperous, not least because it owns Science , one of the world's top research publications. EuroScience is more likely to turn into a multinational version of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a venerable organisation obliged by penury to make fundraising a priority to keep its annual festival on the road. This is hard work, but is preferable to becoming an arm of the state, whether on a national or a continental scale.

But the real question about EuroScience is whether it has any European science to show off. The shiniest investments of European research - the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and Cern, the nuclear research agency - will be out in force. But on a day-to-day basis, scientists still do not collaborate as easily between the UK and Germany as they do between Maryland and Massachusetts. Even in Ireland, the most Europhilic of EU states, the "BTA" - Been To America - is said to be the basic qualification for a good job in a university. The commission's own research budget, designed to create genuinely European science, is already as large as the science spending of a medium-sized country. It is set to grow drastically, and EuroForum will be used to build support for higher spending.

The twin priorities of Potocnik's predecessor, Philippe Busquin, are bound to be given a good show. One, the European Research Area, is really a single European market in scientists that would allow researchers to move between countries, jobs and institutions without today's bureaucratic tangle. This sounds fine, but there is no reason to suppose that it will happen for scientists more than for any other part of the workforce. The other, the European Research Council, is designed to use money as a blunt instrument for European integration by making the EU's top scientists compete with one another for cash as they now do at national level. This is the right idea, but the money it brings is more likely to be seen as an add-on rather than as core funding.

The commission's emphasis on research and innovation is a cunning choice.

Everyone agrees about its economic importance, which always matters in a continent whose mindset is trying to catch up with the US and Japan and stay ahead of new challengers in Asia. And it allows Brussels to be seen to be doing something on the environment, employment and other key concerns.

The problem is that only a minority of researchers - typically in areas such as air pollution, which inherently crosses borders - really see themselves as European. The crowd in Stockholm is bound to consist mainly of these enthusiasts, rather than the majority who, given adequate national funding, would never wrestle with the complexities of getting cash from Brussels. Despite this, the European Union's research efforts so far have generated new ideas, collaborations, and even some excitement. Perhaps a good annual show - maybe with better timing than the height of the holiday season - is just what is needed to spread the word.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher .

Nancy Rothwell is on holiday.

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