Brussels, 08 Dec 2005
One of the oldest organisations supporting European research, COST (European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research) is initiating reforms that will introduce more competitiveness to its funding process. New COST Director Martin Grabert hopes that they will break down walls and create synergies.
COST is an intergovernmental action that supports the networking of nationally funded projects. It does this by supporting science management meetings, scientific workshops and seminars, short term scientific missions, training schools and research conferences, evaluations and studies, and dissemination. It is open to all EU Member States, as well as the candidate countries, and Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Serbia and Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Israel. COST can also support people from neighbouring countries, namely to the East of the EU and in the Mediterranean.
A decision to change the scientific domains in which COST operates is a major decision, particularly when one considers that this is the first time in 35 years that this has been done. Such a decision was taken at the end of November. The domains now include molecular biosciences, forests and their products, materials, Earth system science, and culture and health.
The restructuring of the domains is intended to encourage new people to take advantage of COST, explained Dr Grabert in an interview with CORDIS News. New people will be found for the domain committees - preferably young people with new ideas, said Dr Grabert.
COST also wishes to give more assistance to young researchers than it has done in the past. Dr Grabert hopes that by encouraging young researchers in particular to get involved in COST, competition for the available funding will increase, leading to a higher quality of proposal.
Although the success rate in terms of the acceptance of proposals for funding has so far been 100 per cent, this will change, and for the better, according to Dr Grabert. 'Access in the past has been through friends telling friends, so it has not been an open procedure as such. We want to move on. We want a more competitive approach,' he said.
An open call will be published in March 2006, and will publicise the new selection criteria that COST is currently working on.
Young researchers who have recently taken part in the EU's Marie Curie scheme may find COST particularly helpful, as will young researchers who wish to have more interaction with a mentor.
Dr Grabert sees COST's mission as filling a gap in the European Commission's framework programmes for research. The Commission has it's own 'enabling tool', the Marie Curie scheme, 'but it is extremely difficult for young postdocs to enter into funding programmes after having done Marie Curie', said Dr Grabert. 'The ERC [European Research Council] will also look at people's track record and will concentrate on excellence. But you have to generate excellence,' he said. 'We support people striving for excellence.'
And in the process, COST is also actively supporting the creation of a European Research Area (ERA) and contributing to the Lisbon goal of making Europe's economy the most competitive in the world by 2010, Dr Grabert emphasised.
COST's means are, however, limited. It is currently funding around 200 actions per year, and receives its money from the Commission through the framework programmes. For this reason, Dr Grabert is hoping for a rapid agreement on the budget for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) following on from a 'more constructive compromise on the Financial Perspectives'. The COST secretariat has good arguments to take to a structured debate with the Commission on deepening the support that it can offer, says Dr Grabert. Realistically, he expects COST to be able to support between 250 and 0 actions per year under FP7.
In the past, COST has had limited visibility, doubtless because of its limited means. But it does have a number of concrete successes under its belt. For example, over the last seven to eight years, public transport has become accessible to those with prams and wheelchairs. This accessibility originates from a COST action that saw research and industry collaborate on the setting of standards.
The European centre for medium range weather forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, the UK, also stems from a COST Action, and recently celebrated its 30th birthday.
Along with the internal restructuring, COST's support unit has recently undergone a move from the Commission's DG Research to the European Science Foundation (ESF). COST is a 'strange animal', and with its intergovernmental structure did not fit completely within the Commission.
With its new ambitions and new structure, it is surely only a matter of time before COST increases its visibility and shares more of its success stories with Europe's wider research community.