Visions of a synchronised continent

March 20, 1998

This week's Royal Society 'Science in Society' meeting, Science Funding: The European Dimension, covered both national and EU-wide issues. You can hear it all at THESIS, The THES Internet Service (www.thesis.co.uk). Here are abstracts of the key speeches

William Waldegrave

The European dimension

EU research funding began with Euratom and continues via Maastricht to the current, fourth, Framework programme for research and development. Three (sometimes conflicting) driving forces influencing it include: political (science as an element of European culture which could contribute to European integration); industrial (meeting the American or Japanese challenge to European competitiveness); scientific (major supranational projects, networks, additional sources of funding).

Different political perceptions, were observed in negotiation of the fourth Framework programme: budget contributors versus budget recipients; how near-to -market work should be funded; Germany and UK versus France; science versus cohesion; North versus South and the juste retour argument on returning funds to contributor nations; different management philosophies; in- house research versus customer contractor principle; and the EU Joint Research Centre as a host for research.

Overall, problems of interaction of direct political or popularist input distort longer-term discussion, and there are problems of bureaucracy. But the problems are outweighed by gains in co-operation and support for supranational projects. It is important to avoid the fallacy of separate "European Science": science is a bridge builder with East and Central Europe, Russia, Asia and US, as at Cern. For all its troubles EU research and development should be viewed as a success to be defended and developed. It provides common ground between "federalists" and "nationalists."

The Right Honorable William Waldegrave was science minister from 1992-94 and higher education minister from 1981-83.

Jorma Routti

EU research programmes

The European Commission has been funding research through framework programmes since the early 1980s. These aim to strengthen the research capacities of laboratories, universities and enterprises throughout the European Union, to bolster the international competitiveness of European industry, and to provide support for other EU policies, particularly those relating to the concerns of the citizens of Europe. They have been very successful, but, with limited resources, efforts must be concentrated on areas where European-level funding can really make a difference. Research, technology and demonstration policy is at the centre of the commission's strategy as set out in Agenda 2000. This stresses the need for research to "be given a new impetus" and to "provide real added value in relation to national programmes". These are the aims of the Fifth Framework programme, which adopts an interdisciplinary, integrated approach and addresses issues of primary concern to Europe: economic, social and scientific. A substantial reduction has been made in the number of thematic programmes, each of which contains a number of innovative "key actions" with very specific objectives linked to the major economic and social objectives of the European Union.

Jorma Routti is director general, Directorate General XII, Science, Research and Development.

Fotis Kafatos

European needs in the coming century of biology

Biology is rapidly evolving as a field and will have a dominant role in the science and technology of the 21st century. Europe is at the origin of many fundamental advances that are propelling this evolution, and a number of laboratories across Europe are important players in it. Nevertheless, there is reason for concern about the future strength of Europe in this domain. Some of the pertinent issues are:

* Flexibility. The ferment in biology is such that borders between subdisciplines are becoming meaningless. New research techniques are changing the modes of investigation and are introducing an important "big-science" element. The exponential increase in data and the emergence of systematic approaches make possible and indeed mandate new interfaces with other disciplines, such as physics and computer sciences. Does the European science system have the scientific and administrative flexibility to meet these challenges?

* Interdisciplinarity, critical mass and mobility. Interdisciplinarity is a requirement, not a luxury. Centres of excellence with critical mass and an open, co-operative culture are ever more important. Free mobility of both trainees and independent investigators and encouragement of outstanding Europeans to return from overseas would permit the emergence and strengthening of such centres.

* Level of funding. Comparison of recent trends and future projections of funding for biomedical research in Europe and the United States speaks for itself.

* Continental vision. Europe cannot afford purely national strategies. The roles of both national and international institutions must be considered and supported accordingly.

Fotis Kafatos is director general, European Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Heidelberg, Germany.

Tom Blundell

The funding for small and large science for biology in Europe

For biologists Europe has had a very significant impact on research activity reflected in several areas of collaboration and networking. The most successful large science initiatives have undoubtedly been the facilities, most particularly thanks to Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), ISIS, the ESRF and the various synchrotron sources, usually funded by national governments but operated in a very European fashion (Hamburg, Lure, Trieste, SRS). The most generally supported have been the facilities for X-ray data collection at synchrotron sources with 60 or 70 per cent of structures using synchrotron radiation for data collection and an increasing number using multiple wavelength and anomalous dispersion. Neutron sources have been less successful, possibly partly because of the lack of reliable source during the past years. Of European laboratories, EMBL at Heidelberg has been spectacularly successful in attracting high quality young scientists from all over Europe and producing internationally competitive work. This, however, tends to be more expensive per individual than in equivalent laboratories such as the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

The EU research programmes have generally been considered bureaucratic and complex. But they have brought together key European players in areas such as protein engineering, food and agriculture. The travelling mobility researcher (TMR)fellowships are probably better value and have done much to re-orient European postdoctorals towards other European laboratories and away from the inevitable movement to North America.

The conclusion that appears obvious is that European programmes should focus on international facilities where they cannot be provided economically at a national level. Once the facility is constructed free access and proper competition for the use of the facility for the best science should be established. Funds for networking groups are valuable but should have the minimum amount of bureaucracy. Funds for young fellows to move between European laboratories are a highly efficient and un-bureaucratic way of supporting European science.

Sir Tom Blundell is Sir William Dunn professor of biochemistry, University of Cambridge.

Tony Mayer

2017: a science funding model for Europe

2017 is the diamond jubilee of the ratification of the Treaty of Rome which established Europe on the path to integration. This paper outlines a possible model for science funding which may evolve in the next 20 years. This recognises that, by its very nature, science is international and so should be in the vanguard of internationalisation. At the same time, science is competitive, especially so where funding is concerned. European science funding arrangements should reflect these characteristics and provide continental-scale solutions, if Europe is to compete at a continental level in the global economy. While recognising that there will continue to be national support for science, a mature Europe should move towards a single European Grant Agency, together with an organisation to promote coordination and exchange within the European scientific community; and, possibly, a smaller and more focused Framework programme. Such a system should produce economies of scale, which can be used to enhance support for fundamental research.

Tony Mayer is head of strategy, European Science Foundation, Strasbourg.

Hubert Markl

Subsidiarity in European research: the German experience

Germany has much experience in practising subsidiarity in funding scientific research, because its constitution distinguishes carefully between the rights, responsibilities and obligations of the federal and state governments in higher education and the promotion of scientific research. The system of institutions and organisations through which these influences are channelled are highly diversified and the balance between federal and state interests is expressed in the funding proportions they allocate to each research organisation. Thus Max Planck Society, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Fraunhofer-Society, Helmholtz-Society of German Research Centers etc, are all in varying degrees dependent on one federal government and no fewer than 16 state governments.

Although the system has many advantages for maintaining scientific independence from direct political control, it does make consensus difficult and gives each political participant a veto against unwanted changes.

European unification adds another layer of organisational and financial power on top of these existing national structures, making another balancing act of subsidiarity between the union and 15 (and very soon even more) member nations necessary. German experience suggests that it will be indispensable to divide obligations, financial resources and decision-making powers between the three tiers carefully and with as little overlap, co-financing and co-decision as possible. This is needed to allow flexibility and competition between actors, which is vital for enhancing scientific productivity. It would seem advisable not to reproduce the German subsidiarity system on the higher level of the European Union in, as it were, fractal fashion, but rather to take the opportunity of European unification for more clearly sorting out controlling and financing obligations between the different levels of community organisation.

Hubert Markl is president, Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Munich.

Graeme Davies

Sources of research resource

For the average UK researcher the sources of research funding are generally very clear - the research councils, the charitable trusts such as Wellcome or Leverhulme, the various arms of the Office of Science and Technology, government departments, local government, private sponsors in industry and commerce, the European Union and other overseas sources.

While home sponsorship is clearly dominant, there has been growing success in gaining support from the EU and there is a widespread view that there is a need to encourage support from Europe. One way of doing this may be to increase significantly the available levels of resource for Europe-wide collaborations. This could be done by recognising that the above funding sources have increasingly sought to define ways in which those bidding for support should seek to combine their skills to bring a new and enhanced expertise into play. Some of the support specifically involves collaboration on an international level and particularly with partners in Europe.

Sir Graeme Davies is principal of the University of Glasgow.

Howard Newby

If it is permitted, must it be compulsory?

Research management is a spectrum from a responsive to a directive mode. In general, scientific peers will seek out their own collaborators in terms of equivalence or excellence. This is the most robust form of collaboration (which often needs enabling funds). More directive forms are often less satisfactory and geo-political influences are usually positively harmful. Instead of producing "European value added" such forced collaborations risk a form of lowest common denominator research.

Howard Newby is vice-chancellor, University of Southampton.

Sir Robert May, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, spoke on "The European Dimension of the UK Science Base". His talk was not available as we went to press.

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