Politicians, scientists and officials begin to give shape to ERC

February 24, 2003

Brussels, 21 Feb 2003

With the debate over the possible creation of a European research council gathering momentum, CORDIS News looks at the contributions of leading political figures, scientists and officials at an event in Paris on 19 February for clues as to the possible framework of a future ERC.

The Paris debate provided one definite conclusion: widespread support now exists among the European scientific community for the creation of an ERC. The real debate now centres on the founding principles, structure and funding mechanisms of such a body, and whilst opinion on these issues is still divided, the positions of various interested parties are becoming clearer.

For researchers and scientists, the most important issues are the autonomy of such a body and the type of research that it funds. Nobel Laureate Professor Rolf Zinkernagel argues that while EU and national institutions should be widely consulted before setting up an ERC, the final body should have total decision making independence.

'When we look at the most successful research programmes in the US, we find that they are long term in their approach and are run by scientists themselves,' he said. Professor Zinkernagel also stressed that without sufficient funding, the ERC would posses only the illusion of independence: 'Europe doesn't need another debating club. It needs a scientific committee with real power, and the freedom to use that power.'

In response, José Mariano Gago, Portugal's former Science and Technology Minister, warned against placing too high an emphasis on independence. He gave the example of other agencies that had succeeded in achieving total autonomy, but as a direct result of their independence had failed to secure adequate levels of financing.

There was a general consensus among scientists that ERC funding should support basic or fundamental research initiatives, free from the principle of 'fair return'. A number of senior researchers, including Professor Zinkernagel and Professor Jean-Patrick Connerade, President of Euroscience, also emphasised the positive effect that competition between the ERC and national research councils would have on European science.

Here, however, Dr Peter Kind, Director of the Research DG's Directorate for structuring the ERA, disagreed. As one of its founding principles, he argued that: 'The ERC should not duplicate or compete with existing national or European funding structures - there is plenty of room for complementarity.' In fact, Dr Kind asserts that: 'The most likely founding fathers of the ERC are the national research councils,' which would certainly strengthen the case for complementarity over competition.

Indeed, with Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin stating that an ERC should not expect to receive significant funding from the EU framework programmes for research, the national research councils may well be an important source of financing for such a body. Highlighting the competitive element of an ERC could prove a risky strategy.

A possible scenario is an ERC with strong executive links to existing EU and national institutions and funding bodies, which ensures that a majority of board members have a strong scientific background.

In terms of funding, the Commission feels strongly that an ERC should set out to attract new money into research, thus contributing to the EU's goal of raising research spending to three per cent of GDP. Most scientists are in agreement, though there are a minority who would be prepared to see an ERC established on the basis of a reallocation of existing research funding.

There is general agreement from all sides on what the next stages in the ERC debate will be. A high level expert group, appointed by the European Science Foundation to investigate the idea of an ERC, met on 18 February and is due to deliver a final report on the proposed objectives, structure, and financing model for the body in November 2003. The report is intended as background for discussions, which supporters of the ERC hope will take place under the Irish Presidency in the first half of 2004.

Both scientists and political figures called for a professional and focussed lobbying effort, based on a clearly defined model of an ERC. Commissioner Busquin said that he was 'fully in favour of the idea of an ERC, but it is the job of the scientific community to push the idea. The task must be approached by better defining the organisation, and specifying its financial arrangements,' he said.

So while there are still elements of the ERC debate where opinion is split on even the most fundamental of issues, it is possible to identify principles, structures and funding models that would be acceptable to a majority of parties. The emergence of areas of consensus at the Paris event was confirmed by the genuine surprise expressed by many participants that the meeting had gone so smoothly.

The final outcome of the debate may simply be a question of timing, but as ERC supporter Professor François Gros said: 'To quote Victor Hugo: 'Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come'.'

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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