FROM January Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union. One of the urgent issues to be addressed is the future of Europe's scientific research programme - known as the fifth Framework (FP5).
Due to start in early 1999, FP5's scope and cost are far from settled - agreement still has to be reached across the European Commission, European Parliament and Council of Ministers - and there may be a delay in the allocation of funds.
The EC put forward its plans for FP5 in the summer of 1996. Building on the fourth programme (FP4) and, it claims, having taken on board criticisms, the commission proposed 16 key areas.
These were to be organised into three "thematic programmes": the living world and the ecosystem; the information society; and competitive and sustainable growth, and three "horizontal programmes": international cooperation; participation of small and medium-sized businesses; and improving human potential. These cut across the thematic programmes.
A recent meeting of the Council of Ministers, involving the research ministers from each of the 15 member states, reached agreement in some areas. But, according to one observer, a number of important areas, related to content, structure and cost were left unresolved.
Britain is one of several nations known to want to keep the FP5 budget at FP4 levels of Ecus13.2 billion (Pounds 8.9 billion), as opposed to the Ecus16.3 billion (Pounds 11 billion) suggested by the commission.
Most ministers want the thematic programmes extended to five, giving the living world, the environment and energy separate groups of their own. But not all agree. Also up for debate is the role of member states in deciding micro-policy, including shortlists for grants, which currently have to be approved by programme committees representing the member states. The commission wants the process streamlined.
The council is now awaiting the European Parliament's response to the EC's proposal, which it will consider in February.
The parliament is due to decide its position on FP5 next week - 639 amendments to the commission's initial proposals have been tabled. It is the unenviable job of rapporteur Godelieve Quisthoudt-Rowohl to rationalise these and prepare a draft that will win parliamentary approval.
According to a British observer, despite the vast number of amendments, people hope the parliament will make a decision and the Council of Ministers could follow in February. "If this doesn't happen we will certainly end up with delays in the FP5," she said.
Several thousand UK scientists benefit from European-funded research projects which it is estimated in 1996/97 brought into Britain roughly equivalent to what the country invested in FP4, minus administration and centre costs. The EU does not release figures but it is thought to be around Pounds 300 million.
The outcome of the European Parliament's and Council of Ministers' debate on the cost and structure of the programme will, when it finally becomes clear, be handed back to the commission, which then retables a new FP5 taking these comments into consideration. The FP5 then gets a second reading which could be finalised by June. If it is not, conciliation may begin.
But what of the criticisms of the outgoing FP4? Many, including Britain's House of Lords select committee, said it was inefficiently managed, with a lack of transparency and accountability, and that the money was spread too thinly to be useful. According to those at the commission, the new programme, though it builds on FP4, has been made simpler.