The Beginning of a New ERA?

It was not a good start. The key speakers, German science minister Edelgard Bulmahn and EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, both had to cancel their appearances at short notice. And many of the 1200 registered scientists, science advisors, and industry representatives were late--the result of rain, snow, and diverted airplanes. But eventually far more people than the organisers had expected made it to the Hannover convention centre for the official German launch of the EU's 6th Framework Programme.

What they heard was worth fighting the elements for. With a total budget of ? 17.5 billion, FP6 will be a major player in European science and science policy over the course of the next 4 years. In particular there are great opportunities for young scientists--and for researchers from the candidate countries. "This programme provides opportunities which we need to use more intensely than ever," said Christoph Matschie, parliamentary undersecretary with the German Ministry of Education and Research ( BMBF).

FP6 will be a key instrument for implementing the EU's vision of a European Research Area (ERA). And one of the most important ways of doing that will be by further encouraging the mobility of researchers through a series of programmes united under the Marie Curie name (see sidebar 1). This is where young scientists, in particular, stand to benefit.

Funding Mobility: The Marie Curie Funding Schemes

Under FP6, all funding instruments aimed at increasing scientists' mobility are given the "Marie Curie" label. But there are more changes from FP5. The most important are:

  • The former age limit of 35 has been waived. Instead, the programme divides eligible researchers into two groups by research experience: "Early-stage" scientists have less than 4 years of research experience, while scientists with a PhD and/or more than 4 years of research experience are called "advanced" scientists.

  • The Marie Curie schemes are open to scientists of any nationality, not just EU citizens and nationals of associated states.

  • Promotion of excellence, reintegration, and return measures have been included in the portfolio of schemes.

  • Family issues are finally being taken into consideration, e.g., family allowances for higher travel or moving costs.

The funding instruments are divided into two main categories. For host-driven actions, an institution applies to host a number of fellows. This mainly applies to the instruments aimed at early-stage researchers. Advanced researchers can apply for their own funding through individual-driven actions.

For both early-stage and advanced researchers, a vast range of fellowship opportunities is being offered, ranging from short (3 months) to long-term (up to 3 years) appointments and with different purposes such as structured training, research projects or groups, conference visits, industry/academia strategic partnerships, return incentives, and professorial chairs.

Financial support for early-career researchers has undergone some major improvements compared with FP5, not least a significant budget increase to ? 1.58 billion. "Depending on which figures from FP5 you compare it to, the budget has grown by 50% to 80%," commented Georges Bingen, head of the "Fellowships" Unit at the European Commission's (EC) Research Directorate-General.

The deadline for the first call for proposals is only 6 to 8 weeks away, and Bingen anticipates that the first payments could be made as early as September or October. He added that the distribution of funds resembles a pyramidal structure, with most funds and fellowships available for the earliest stage researchers, and fewest for the most senior.

Bingen pointed out that the Marie Curie schemes are not meant to replace national science funding programmes. Nonetheless, a German priority under FP6 will be making sure that more young scientists know about the potential of the Marie Curie schemes. As Dietrich Elchlepp, BMBF division head for young researchers, recognised, "Mobility is not only impeded by inflexible administrative structures, but also by not knowing about the funding opportunities." BMBF wants to increase German participation in the Marie Curie schemes, Elchlepp said, because while Germany's overall contribution to the EU budget is around 23%, under FP5 just 12% of individual fellowship money went to Germans, and German institutions won only 18% of the cash available for host fellowships.

But although the funding for mobility may be available, there are other obstacles to overcome. Moving from one country to another--especially with a family--can present tremendous problems. Visas, work permits, social security, health insurance--the list of issues facing the mobile scientist is long. But the Research Directorate-General has plans to help scientists with these matters, too. The new "EC Mobility Portal" should be operational by May 2003, Bingen announced. (See sidebar 2 for additional sources of information.) The Internet site is designed to address issues of concern and will be supported by a network of national mobility centres where mobile scientists can get face-to-face advice. The negotiations with German science organisations on the structure of such a mobility centre are already at an advanced stage, Elchlepp confirmed.

Where can I get more information?

FP6 German home page: EU Bureau of the BMBF for FP6: KoWi--the German science organisations' liaison office in Brussels: Marie Curie Fellowship Association: Cordis, Community Research and Development Information Service:

Several other groups of scientists look set to benefit from FP6. Research projects rooted within one of the seven FP6 priority areas could improve their effectiveness by establishing partnerships on a European level, thus leading to a strengthening of European research as a whole. And scientists from those countries with candidate status or EU-associated countries--mostly in Central and Eastern Europe--also get a new research outlook. FP6 allows full participation, and therefore full eligibility for funding, for science in those countries. This important change was reflected by the presence of a number of scientists from Eastern Europe at the Hannover event. Matschie highlighted the importance of looking eastwards and encouraged scientists to seek partnerships with researchers in the candidate countries. Eastern Germany, he added, has the potential to become a connecting region between the "old" Europe and its new members.

The EC can provide the incentives, but in the end it is up to individual German scientists to make use of the new opportunities. The response by scientists in Hannover could have been a first signal--in the end, not even the weather could hinder the drive for information.

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