Nobel winners back EU focus

October 10, 2003

Proposals for a European Research Council won influential backing this week with a plea from 43 Nobel prizewinners.

A group led by Erwin Neher, winner of the 1991 Nobel prize for medicine, appeared at a Brussels meeting to support the idea, which research commissioner Philippe Busquin regards as key to the European Union's planned European Research Area.

The group included Sir James Black and Sir Tim Hunt, British scientists who won the medicine prize in 1988 and 2001 respectively.

Professor Neher said that the group was alarmed that the ERC had little political support in Brussels. It was necessary, he said, because current research was not "tailored to the specific needs of knowledge-oriented research". Most of the work being funded in the EU's present 6th Framework programme for research is applied work, often of industrial interest.

He said that "competition among European research laboratories for funding by the ERC carries a true European-added value by promoting excellence".

But Professor Neher added that the ERC would be useful only ifit funded "knowledge-oriented research according to internationally accepted procedures".

The scientists insisted that the ERC must apply full peer review to the applications it received to avoid suggestions that its money was not going to top proposals in pure science.

Mr Busquin is known to want the ERC as the centrepiece of the ERA, a planned single market in research funds and personnel, which is his main policy.

But the scheme has a number of severe political problems. It would not be acceptable to fund it from existing framework budgets, which could mean delaying startup until 2006 when Framework 7 should begin. Member nations will not want to pay for it with no guaranteed return. In particular, the smaller EU nations and the ten candidate states are concerned that they may get little from the billions of euros it would be distributing.

UK chancellor Gordon Brown this week signed the UK up to a deal with France and Germany, which could mean an extra £150 billion for research, telecommunications and transport. Most of the cash is likely to be spent by industry, perhaps with tax breaks to encourage higher expenditure.

* London-born physicist Anthony Leggett this week shared a Nobel prize with Russian Alexei Abrikosov and American Vitaly Ginzburg for their work on superconductivity and superfluidity.

Professor Leggett was honoured for the work he carried out at Sussex University from 1967 to 1983, when he explained how atoms interact and are ordered in the superfluid state. He is now based at the University of Illinois.

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