European Research Momentum

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Science  06 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5685, pp. 753
DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5685.753

Last year, a Science Editorial (29 August 2003) surveyed recent developments in European science and research policy. It highlighted the call for a restructuring that would double support for science, with a renewed focus on basic research, better priority-setting, regional centers of excellence, integration of European Union (EU) science policy with respect to broader issues, and a new balance between basic and applied research. It hinted at the formation of a European Research Council (ERC) as a partial answer to dissatisfactions expressed by researchers with the EU's Framework Programmes for research funding.

One year later, the dynamics look truly impressive. The EU has become larger, and the European Constitution, agreed on in June 2004, makes explicit reference to research and a convergent European Research Area “in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely.” This gives EU research policy a more solid base and broadens its scope, making research a “shared competence.” The last Communication of the outgoing EU Commissioner for Research, M. Philippe Busquin, entitled Science and Technology, the Key to Europe's Future, contains an outline of Framework Programme 7 (FP7), a proposal based on a prospective EU research budget that would be doubled. Politically, the importance of research has received recognition. New financial instruments have been designated that allow, for instance, reallocation of funds from highways to research infrastructures. None of these developments should be taken for granted. Our common efforts need to be directed to ensure that the new EU Commission and the newly elected European Parliament will build on this momentum.

One of the six objectives of FP7, to begin in 2007, supports basic research and an ERC that would encompass all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences. The ERC mission would be to generously support the very best researchers, making them truly competitive on a global scale. This is a welcome development after a vigorous public debate. But if basic research, investigator- driven and conducted solely through competition based on scientific excellence, is to be effectively organized, the Competitiveness Council, presided over by Maria van der Hoeven, Minister for Education, Culture and Science (the Netherlands), must ensure an autonomous ERC that fits these objectives. An ERC should also help to create working conditions at least as good as those in the United States for young and talented researchers in Europe.

But an ERC is no miracle cure, nor can it compensate for other deficiencies. The challenge is to create a European knowledge base for research and innovation in which human resources, adequate infrastructures, and mechanisms to encourage excellence receive the necessary sustained boost. Political support for a better balance between basic and applied research stems from recognition of the impact of basic research on economic performance. Comparing research institutions in the United States with those in Europe shows the overall greater mission orientation of the U.S. federal R&D system and the concomitant importance attached to management. In contrast, research in Europe is still often seen as belonging to the separate categories of “basic” and “applied,” and we seem to put more effort into inventing rules for management than into having management meet objectives. We should not be surprised that the general climate for university/industry cooperation and for innovation is more favorable in the United States.

A key to the overall challenges is the transformation of European universities, which in the end will determine whether support for basic research through EU mechanisms will have the desired effects. Throughout Europe, there is clear recognition that brakes of a political, financial, and administrative nature on universities have to be removed. Some countries, such as Germany, are discussing the creation of elite universities. Many cultural mindsets will have to change. European science needs a two-pronged approach if the present momentum is to lead to robust organizational solutions: sound research policies and much hard work on local and national levels.

Finally, European research and innovation policies must be rooted in a broader-based culture that truly integrates European citizens. Such a culture of science must also address the public's occasional skepticism, and even its refusal, of such a climate. This month, the EuroScience Open Forum 2004 (Stockholm), with its deliberately provocative yet cheerful embrace of controversial issues, is not only timely but indispensable. It alerts us that focus and momentum must be kept at this crucial period of transition.

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