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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 December, 2004, 09:59 GMT
Stakes high for EU science plans
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

Scientist in the lab, Eyewire/BBC
Some think Europe's funding system is "over-bureaucratised"
Europe must make good on plans to set up an independent funding body for science or face an unprecedented brain drain, a leading scientist has warned.

Carl Sundberg of the Euroscience forum said proposals to boost Europe's knowledge-based economy had so far failed to live up to their promise.

And if the current push for a European Research Council failed, scientists could flock to the US and Asia for work.

EU ministers expressed support for the council at a recent Brussels meeting.

There have been many successes in previous years under earlier programmes, but the system now needs a thorough overhaul
Lord Sainsbury, UK science minister
But scientists' patience could run out if Europe does not deliver on changes to the current system of funding.

"This is a one-off chance for the European system to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of scientists," Dr Sundberg, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, told the BBC News website.

"Scientists will be extremely disappointed if it doesn't happen or it is underfunded. It must not fail."

In Europe, research is funded by individual national agencies as well as the EU's Framework 6 programme (FP6). But FP6 has been criticised widely for being over-bureaucratic, skewed towards big, complex collaborations and subject to political pressures.

Scientist in the lab, BBC/Eyewire
The ERC would put funding in the hands of scientists
Perceived shortcomings led to calls for a European Research Council (ERC) to support basic research across all disciplines.

The UK government has made plain its support for an ERC ahead of negotiations on how the next (seventh) EU Research and Development Framework Programme will operate.

"There have been many successes in previous years under earlier programmes, but the system now needs a thorough overhaul," said UK science minister Lord Sainsbury.

"It is too bound up in red tape and does not provide applicants with sufficient support, guidance or feedback. The UK government wants access to funding across Europe to be streamlined and simplified."

Playing catch-up

The EU's 25 member states invest roughly 120bn a year in research and development, compared with more than 210bn spent by the US.

This disparity in research funding is already feeding a brain drain of scientists from Europe to the US, as recently highlighted by the UK's Royal Society.

EU member states tried to address the imbalance in the 2000 "Lisbon strategy", which promised an agenda for transforming Europe into "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Cern
Cern was conceived to stop Europe's post-war brain drain
But a mid-term review published earlier this month was highly critical of progress on delivering the strategy, blaming a "lack of determined political action".

The ERC is envisioned as an independent, quality-driven funding body run by scientists, modelled on the US National Science Foundation and National Institutes for Health.

Supporters argue that it would drive up the competitiveness and, by extension, the quality of scientific research within Europe.

"The process of competing with the best in Europe for funding would also help to benchmark the quality of UK scientific research," said a spokesperson for the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Competitive edge

Antonia Mochan, the European Commission's spokesperson for science and research, added: "Organising competition on a European scale will ratchet up the levels of aspiration and achievement of researchers."

Those involved in deciding the terms on which European research proceeds are careful to avoid talk of efforts to rival the US. But it is clear that America's lead on innovation and hi-tech industries provides the benchmark for other countries.

"Europe does not realise its own potential. That is not the US's fault; it's Europe's fault. It's about bringing Europe up to speed first," said Dr Sundberg.

One-way transatlantic traffic of scientific talent is a long-standing concern in Europe.

The particle lab Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research), which celebrated its 50th birthday last month, was conceived as a way of uniting the continent's scientists and plugging the brain drain from a devastated post-war Europe.

Ministers gave support for the ERC when the European Commission's Competitiveness Council convened last week.

Another development to come out of the event was the first "space council": a meeting of the European Space Agency's ministerial council and the EU's Competitiveness Council.

The space council has been described as a first step towards the creation of an overall European space programme.

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