Nobel laureates to allocate cash

May 21, 2004

Proposals for a high-powered committee of Nobel prizewinning researchers who will use peer review to agree funding for basic research projects across Europe were unveiled last week by Philippe Busquin, commissioner for research in the European Commission.

The European Agency for Fundamental Research will act as the executive arm of the proposed European Research Council, according to Mr Busquin.

Mr Busquin said the European research organisation would channel €1 billion (£670 million) a year into pure research from 2008 - but he conceded that the plans rested on a bid to double the size of the EC's research budget.

At a meeting in Brussels last week to launch 200 Sixth Framework Programme collaborative projects, Mr Busquin told The Times Higher : "We are proposing more money, which will mean better success rates, as well as new modes of governance. The European Agency for Fundamental Research will be autonomous. We will also form interest groups to distribute money in specific areas of technology that will have flexibility to be more responsive."

The members of the agency would be elite researchers from the natural and social sciences, with a strong representation of Nobel prizewinners, according to Mr Busquin.

The commissioner said that the planned research commission would have about €500 million to spend in 2007, its first year, and twice as much in 2008.

He said he wanted to fund the ERC from the commission's Seventh Framework Programme, which runs from 2007 to 2010.

"The work the ERC will fund will not be collaborative, because the best researchers all have their own teams, and it will not be applied," he said.

"The idea is to make the top researchers compete across the whole of Europe, as the existence of the National Science Foundation makes them do in the US. These researchers will get European and world visibility as well as money. We are sure that encouraging them to compete will be good for economic growth as well as for research."

But the proposal depends on approval for a €40 billion budget for FP7, twice the size of that of FP6. This would raise research from its current level of 4.5 per cent of EC spending to 9 per cent.

Mr Busquin admitted that it would be possible to justify doubling commission research spending only if the problems that beset FP6 were tackled.

He said: "The existing programme is complex and cumbersome because it has to cope with many national systems. This means problems because of issues such as university autonomy, industry-university relations and intellectual property, which are complicated within individual nations and even more difficult at a European level.

"In addition, the present programme has insufficient resources for its needs and many good proposals are not funded. It costs more time and money to bid on a European scale, and this means worse disappointment in universities and companies that are not successful."

Mr Busquin also predicted that variations within Europe over the acceptability of stem-cell technology and other applications of emerging biology would change rapidly because of the rate at which the science was changing and being applied elsewhere in the world.

"Our role in this is to find positive common denominators, such as developing work on adult stem cells as an interim solution while work on embryonic stem cells is unacceptable in some parts of Europe," he said.

The Dutch government has said it will back the plans for the ERC during its presidency of the European Union, which begins on July 1 2004.

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