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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 12:01 GMT
European research goes for gold
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, Berlin

A scanning electron microscope (SPL)
The ERC should give a sharper focus to European research
Europe has a new flagship agency to fund the brightest ideas in science.

The European Research Council (ERC) has been given a budget of 7.5bn euros (5bn) to 2013, and will focus solely on fundamental, or "blue skies", study.

It is hoped the initiative can find the breakthrough thinking - and eventually new products and services - to keep the EU's economy globally competitive.

The ERC was formally inaugurated at a meeting in Berlin attended by the German Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel.

She said the Council would become "a Champion's League for research", giving scientists the freedom to be creative and innovative.

"We know that research and new technologies can be driving motors for a new economic dynamic, they can even provide a basis for growth in Europe, for keeping and increasing our prosperity and competitiveness," she observed.

"We expect those who work in the research areas selected by the ERC will fulfil their potential."

Prof Fotis Kafatos, ERC president
It will be an interesting yardstick to see if we have succeeded in bringing people back into Europe who had left, or have attracted new talent into Europe
Prof Fotis Kafatos, ERC president
The Council is envisioned as an independent, quality-driven funding body run by the scientists themselves.

Its creators expect it to stoke competition, and, by extension, drive up the quality of all scientific endeavour within Europe.

"We have a collection of small scientific communities, and that means you have a tendency to select the best in small parts, rather than looking for what will survive in global competition," explains Professor Fotis Kafatos, the ERC's president.

"The ERC is about pooling our efforts so that all of Europe can be a big player. We want to be the best in the world, not just the best in the local neighbourhood."

'Excellence' goal

There is a recognition that the EU will have to fight harder in future if it wants to maintain its economic position.

On research and development (R&D) investment, it continues to lag behind the US and Japan; while countries such as China and India will soon match its spend as a percentage of GDP.

Pan-European funding agency solely for frontier research
Runs under the EU's new Framework Programme 7 (FP7)
For science and technology, social sciences and humanities
Supports wholly investigator-driven or 'bottom-up' research
Wants to encourage creativity, risk-taking; back young talent
Aims to raise status and visibility of basic research

In Europe, public research is funded by individual national agencies as well as the EU's Framework Programme; but the latter has often been criticised as being over-bureaucratic, skewed towards big, complex collaborations, and subject to political pressures.

The ERC is therefore a marked departure from all that has gone before it.

Research projects will not have to be collaborative - they do not have to be pan-European even. There will be no specification of research areas or themes. There will be no "juste retour" which sees member states get back a "fair proportion" of the monies they put into the funding pot.

The ERC has really simple guiding principles: the types of projects it funds must be at the "frontiers" of knowledge. It is looking for "excellence".

And in what is seen as a bold move, the agency's Scientific Council has directed its first grant call not at established names but at emerging new talent.

In 2007, grants totalling 300m euros (200m) will be handed to the most promising up-coming researchers. These are people who have not had a PhD longer than nine years.

'Intelligent' future

It is an approach applauded by Gill Wells, the head of non-commercial and European research development at the UK's Sheffield University.

"If Europe wants to be at the leading edge of anything it has to invest; and just like a football team that wants to be the best, it must invest in its young people; it will have a football academy," she said.

Cesc Fabregas (Getty Images)
Like a football academy, the ERC aims to bring on new talent
"The ERC will be just like that, in one sense. It will train, nurture and support its best youngsters so that in 10 years it will have the best team; and it will be excellence regardless of geography."

The university expects ERC grants to be among the most sought after and prestigious awards in European research.

Sheffield has put in place an administrative structure it believes can support young researchers who want to set up their own investigation teams - people like Dr Kalina Bontcheva, who works in the university's computer science department.

Dr Bontcheva's expertise is in natural language processing: she develops advanced search tools that enable documents and databases to be sifted for the most relevant information.

She is putting together an ERC application that would allow her to investigate more user-friendly ways of interfacing a computer. This would involve talking to "virtual characters".

"We want to make it easier for people to interact with our advanced search technology. You could then ask these characters what you want and they would understand you and go away and get the information for you," she explains.

"This would help people who are not very familiar with computers and the internet, who don't understand about scrolling menus, Google and Word. You would just ask, and the artificial agent would do it for you."

'Measure of success'

The ERC has been some five years in the making, and its establishment has had to overcome the scepticism of a number of EU members, not least the UK which initially doubted the Council could achieve anything that was not already possible through its own research agencies.

Many now hail a critical intervention made by the then British Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury.

He famously threw out a policy of opposition while reviewing briefing documents en route to an informal discussion meeting. As he read the negative views of civil servants, he actually found himself leaning the other way, convinced the ERC could give European research a focus he felt it was lacking at the time.

"In mid-flight I rather arbitrarily changed British policy: I gave a speech in which I outlined all the things that were wrong with the ERC - because by that stage it was too late to re-write the speech - but then explained that I would support it," he recalls.

"There had always been an unhappy mix of basic and applied research in previous Framework Programmes, and it was never quite clear which it was that was being done.

"It seemed to me that the ERC was a very good opportunity to get that clear distinction. Fundamental research would be run by the scientists on a peer-reviewed basis in the same kind of way we run our Research Councils, or the National Science Foundation is run in the US.

"And this would have the added benefit of making the rest of the Framework Programme much more clearly applied and user-driven."

Well-established tools will be used to assess the level of success achieved by the ERC. These will include counting the number of scientific papers published by its researchers and the number of citations they receive.

But Professor Kafatos has other measures he will be looking to.

"It will be very interesting to see how many of our young scientists have become established and have ultimately been given permanent positions by the institutions of Europe; in other words whether it has promoted the careers of young people.

"Also, it will be an interesting yardstick to see if we have succeeded in bringing people back into Europe who had left, or have attracted new talent into Europe."

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