Only the Details are Devilish for New Funding Agency

Reposted with permission from Science News, 29 October 2004

PARIS-- Who said the wheels of European policy grind slowly? Barely 2 years after researchers first dreamed up a brand-new funding agency called the European Research Council (ERC), it seems all but unstoppable. Indeed, many scientists and administrators are so confident that politicians will seal the deal in 2005 that they began filling in the details at a meeting here last week--such as how the ERC should organize peer review, whether it should fund big instruments like particle smashers, and even whether it should hop on the open-access publication bandwagon. "We will get an ERC," says former Portuguese science minister Jose Mariano Gago. "What we are discussing now is the day after."

The meeting, hosted by UNESCO and attended by some 150 people from across the continent, showed widespread agreement about the basic principles of the ERC. The council should be independently run by scientists at arm's length from Brussels and fund science-driven projects from both the natural sciences and humanities, speaker after speaker said. It should go easy on the paperwork and ditch "juste retour," the entrenched E.U. principle that every country gets back roughly what it puts in. Instead, it should reward excellence only and let the chips fall where they may.

Still, there are many issues to sort out--including some that can make or break the venture. One key worry is that, even if its annual budget reaches the €1 billion or€ 2 billion currently being considered, the rejection rate on grants is likely to be very high, which could demoralize researchers and make the best look elsewhere. Meeting participants discussed--and rejected--several possible ways to temper the expected deluge. Setting quotas for applications by country would undercut the very goal of the project, for instance, whereas requiring letters of reference or a list of previous high-impact papers could discourage young talent.

How to create a governance structure that is truly independent of bureaucrats in Brussels--unlike the E.U.'s current research funding system--yet accountable and somehow geographically balanced is another unresolved key issue. Several participants made impassioned pleas to involve non-E.U. members such as Russia or Ukraine, but how exactly they could fit in remained unclear.

The time for decisions is near. Europe's science ministers will discuss the ERC during a meeting of the so-called Competitiveness Council in the Netherlands next month; if they support it, it's up to the European Commission to hammer out the details next year in its proposal for Framework Programme 7 that funds E.U.-wide research, of which the ERC likely will be a part. How much money the ERC can disburse will be determined after Europe's finance ministers discuss their countries' future contributions to the E.U., also next year. Indeed, convincing politicians of the need for a well-funded ERC is now more important than discussing the nitty-gritty of its operations, cautions Pieter Drenth, president of the European Federation of National Academies of Arts and Humanities.

Whatever the outcome, the debate has already produced one interesting side effect, Gago notes: Dozens of science organizations have gotten involved in European science policy for the first time. To wit, more than 50 of them joined the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE), a new group that published a ringing endorsement of the ERC in Science (6 August, p. 776). The high level of interest should help make the project a success, says Gago, who serves as acting chair of ISE: "The ERC will not be alone. It will be accountable to all of us."

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