Research plans spark cash fears

January 9, 2004

The drive to create a European research council could deprive UK science of much-needed funds, senior members of the scientific community warned this week.

UK research council insiders told The THES this week that plans for the controversial European research council, which have been on the drawing board for many months, are now almost certain to go ahead.

The final report from the expert group set up to advise the European council on the issue, published at the end of last year, underlined the need for the new body and called for a budget of e2 billion (£1.4 billion) a year.

But the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Colin Blakemore, is worried about where the money for this "experimental" venture will come from.

Professor Blakemore told The THES : "I would be very upset if the MRC was forced to contribute to the European research council when we do not have enough cash to fund all the internationally excellent science in this country."

He said that all the signs were that the new research council would be set up in the near future. "If that is the case, it is much better to try to be in the driving seat rather than, in the usual UK style, racing after the EU train when it has left the station," he said.

The Research Councils UK strategy group has yet to issue a statement setting out its position. One research council source said the individual councils remained divided over whether a new body would be a good thing.

The source warned that the government could decide that it was more profitable to fund science on a collaborative European level, bypassing the UK councils.

"Whatever the government might say about not doing that," the source continued, "we will never know whether research council budgets would have been larger if we weren't contributing to a European research council."

The expert group, which included the recently retired director general of RCUK, John Taylor, concluded that the new council should be responsible for funding mostly basic research. This will please many scientists across Europe, who have criticised the European Framework programme for favouring applied work rather than fundamental science.

But the group's suggestion that the European research council should be funded through the next Framework programme has been met with some scepticism.

The director of the campaign group Save British Science, Peter Cotgreave, said: "The Framework programme is unbelievably bureaucratic. As an issue of principle, no one has made a clear enunciation of why this should be done at a European level."

A research council insider, who asked not to be named, said there were serious concerns about the ability of the European Commission to run this project efficiently.

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