UK split over Euro council

June 14, 2002

Plans for a pan-European research council to help the continent compete with the US for the fruits of future advances have divided leading figures in UK science.

Research council chief executives met on Wednesday to debate the proposal to recast the way research is organised and funded in Europe.

An independent, public-funded body for science - a European equivalent of the US National Science Foundation - is being championed by Denmark and Sweden as the best way to support long-term, curiosity-driven research.

It could complement or replace the European Commission's Framework programme, which focuses on applied science, and the national research councils, which geographically fragment the continent's E105 billion (£68 billion) annual research spend.

Supporters of the concept, such as Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, argue that a European research council would prompt more competition among the continent's best researchers and hence boost creativity.

Opponents, such as Sir George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, argue that an overarching administrative structure is not needed to achieve this goal. Some fear it could involve more Brussels bureaucracy.

John Taylor, director general of the UK research councils, will lead a high-level delegation to an invitation-only conference in Copenhagen in October to debate the issue.

Speakers at the meeting will include Philippe Busquin, European commissioner for research, and Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust.

Preliminary results of an investigation into the concept by a European Science Foundation expert group, chaired by Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London, will feed into the discussions.

Keith Pavitt, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University, will argue in a keynote speech that two obstacles to realising Europe's scientific potential are the protective nature of national research councils and academic rigidity towards exploring new fields.

He believes an independent European research council could tackle both problems by competing with national research councils to channel more money into basic work in new fields, particularly within academe.

"You should have a research council set up to create more competition and chaos and less co-ordination," he told The THES .

Professor Halliday said Europe's successes in particle physics came because Cern - the European laboratory - provided a dynamic, competitive edge as well as significant resources. He felt a European research council could have a similar invigorating effect in many other fields.

But he said the concept was still too vague and key issues such as who would organise the body could take at least a decade to resolve.

Sir George was more sceptical. In the journal Science , he argued that greater cooperation between national organisations in specific areas could be a more flexible way to coordinate work and improve collaboration between European scientists.

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