Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, and Janez Potocynik, the European Research Commissioner, have reiterated their support for a Europe-wide funding agency for basic research despite continuing uncertainty over future European research budgets, writes Anthea Lipsett.
Lord Sainsbury and Mr Potocynik made a firm commitment to keep the proposed European Research Council on track at the informal meeting of European Union research ministers held this week in Cardiff.
The European Research Council has been threatened by European ministers'
failure to agree the overall EU budget. It might not get off the ground if the money for Framework 7, the next round of research funding, is not 15 per cent of the overall EU budget. "We would have to have quite an important and significant amount of money if we want to make the ERC a success," Mr Potocynik said.
At the informal competitiveness council, he and Lord Sainsbury promised to ensure that the ERC was an autonomous, independent body with scientists making funding decisions based on excellence.
Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford University, who oversaw the selection of scientists who would govern the ERC, agreed. "In our interim and final reports, we made it clear that governance of the council should be responsible for policy, strategy and review. In my judgment, there is no problem about this issue."
He said the Commission had taken a hands-off approach so far, which was a good indication of how it would behave in the future.
"I do not think anybody should be concerned. I would not have done the job if I had not been satisfied about that," he added.
Lord Patten expected to announce the "extremely good list" of scientific council members shortly. The composition of the council is a "sensible balance of gender, scientific discipline and geography" and members had been chosen "on the basis of scientific excellence rather than geographical rationing", he said.
He said there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of the council from both the scientific and industrial communities. "It is not often that the scientific community is at one on a single issue, let alone across Europe - but it is on this one."
"The Commission is putting up a stiff fight for as comprehensive a budget for research as possible. It would be very sad if (the ERC) was not safe, and it would leave the Lisbon strategy in ruins," Lord Patten said.