European Research Not Just Another Framework Program

Reposted with permission from Science News, 15 April 2005

European Union officials have proposed a €73 billion, 7-year funding program with money for individual grants and promises of less red tape. But will researchers believe them, and will political leaders foot the bill?

Promising to mend its bureaucratic ways, the European Commission has unveiled what it hopes will be a new and improved version of its multiyear funding program known as Framework. "This is not just another Framework program," Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik promised several times as he pitched the proposal to the European Parliament on 6 April and to journalists a day later. "We want to do more."

Indeed, the proposal--Framework 7--is twice as big as previous programs, boosting yearly funding from just over €4 billion ($5.2 billion) to more than€ 10 billion($13 billion). Scientists greeted the report with cautious enthusiasm, praising the increased budget and the plans to launch the long-desired European Research Council (ERC), a Europe-wide grantmaking body that will fund individual scientists instead of the large and often unwieldy collaborations supported by previous Framework programs.

The hopes are tempered, however, by two concerns: First, a pending battle over the size of the European Union's whole budget may scupper the grand plans for doubling research spending. Second, scientists have heard promises to simplify Brussels's bureaucracy before, without real results. "The problem with the commission is that they put out quite nice press releases, but they are not always able to follow up," says Bart Destrooper of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, who led a petition campaign calling for reform of the Framework program. "Especially with Framework 6, it was clear that they wanted to have a less complicated system, but it turned out to be more complicated than ever." Nevertheless, he says, Brussels is making the right signals: "They are listening. That's very clear."

On the budget front, Potocnik hopes to convince Europe's heads of government and finance ministers that the expanded Framework program is vital to keep Europe competitive in the face of an aging population and limited natural resources. The Lisbon Agenda, a plan laid out in the Portuguese capital in 2000 to boost Europe's economy by 2010, makes research a key driver for growth, calling on member countries to spend 3% of their gross national products on research and development--half from industry and half from government sources. "This is a moment of truth for us," Potocnik told reporters at a press conference. "Will we be credible in implementing the things that we have agreed to in principle?"

Big plans. Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik seeks a doubling of E.U. research funding.


Support from the European Parliament seems strong, says Philippe Busquin, the former research commissioner turned parliamentarian. In March, the parliament endorsed the ideas of an ERC and a doubling of research spending. However, Europe's heads of government, who hold the E.U.'s purse strings, are gearing up for a bruising fight over the budget. The six countries that contribute more than they receive from Brussels--Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands--want to cap their contributions to the E.U. at 1% of gross national income per year. The commission is proposing an average of 1.14% per year. If these net payers get their way in negotiations in the coming months, scientists' hopes could evaporate. "It all hinges on whether the money will be there or not," says Helga Nowotny of the Vienna Science Center, who chairs the European Research Advisory Board, a panel that advises the commission. Without an increase in the overall budget,€10 billion for Framework per year seems unlikely, she says.

The commission divides its proposal into four areas: Cooperation, Ideas, People, and Capacities. "Cooperation" projects--the networks of excellence and other large-scale projects familiar from previous Framework programs--take up nearly half the budget. The Cooperation money is split between nine themes--including health, energy, environment, transport, and space and security--and will be used to fund large collaborations, often involving dozens of labs. "Ideas" refers to the cutting-edge research the commission hopes the ERC will fund. Money for "People" will finance the Marie Curie program that helps European and international researchers study and work abroad. The program, which even critics say is a real success, is slated to receive just over€ 1 billion a year--twice as much as it has under Framework 6 (see sidebar, p. 343). "Capacities," which includes infrastructure projects such as genomics data banks, radiation sources, and observatories as well as funding for science-and-society programs, will also receive about€1 billion per year. The budget also includes € 1.8 billion for the E.U.'s Joint Research Center, which does food and chemical safety testing as well as climate and some nuclear research. Because of political sensitivities, funding for nuclear energy research in the EURATOM program is calculated separately. It is slated to receive€3.1 billion through 2011.

The proposal includes funding for two new areas: socioeconomic research and security and space. Socioeconomics will receive nearly€800 million over 7 years. The € 4 billion allotted for security and space will allow for closer cooperation with the European Space Agency, especially on the Galileo project to launch a fleet of global positioning satellites (Science, 25 April 2003, p. 571). It will also fund antiterrorism research, new border security technologies, and emergency- The€ 1.7 billion a year planned for the ERC is the result of an unprecedented grassroots movement initiated by scientists just 3 years ago (Science, 3 May 2002, p. 826). Fed up with the large projects that strangled their research in top-down bureaucracy, science leaders began calling for a European body more like the U.S. National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.

That dream came true more quickly than many of its architects expected. Busquin championed the idea, and the commission endorsed it last June. Although some worried that the Brussels Eurocrats would take a solid-gold idea and transmute it into lead, most soon came to realize that the efficient path went through the commission. "There is no alternative" to having the commission involved, says Nowotny. "The times are gone when there was no E.U., and you could set up [international physics lab] CERN with treaties between governments. If you tried to do that now, it would take 20 years."

In recent months the pace has accelerated. In January the commission named a five-member Identification Committee to draw up a list of candidates for the 18-member governing council that will run the ERC. The committee issued a progress report in March outlining the qualities it is looking for in candidates. It promised to present its final list to the commission by June.

Second only to their hopes for an ERC is a call to cut down on the paperwork required to apply for and administer Framework money (see sidebar, p. 344). "If there is one word that I have heard from every scientist who has entered my office, it is 'simplify,' " Potocnik says. He promised that the commission will try. Although details won't be clear until later this year, the commission will propose that scientists applying for Framework 7 money go through a two-step process. The first application will require less paperwork and will involve only a concept proposal. Only those whose projects make a first cut will be asked to submit a full proposal.

In a staff working paper on simplification that, perhaps tellingly, runs nearly 10 pages, the commission also promises to establish an electronic database of applicants that should help speed the application and evaluation process. In his presentation to Parliament, Potocnik urged delegates to ease some of the legal restrictions that bind the commission, leading to complex legal contracts instead of grants. "I hope we will gain the courage to give scientists more trust and autonomy than we have in the past," he later told journalists. "We want this to happen."

The proposal outlined last week is far from the final say on Framework 7. The European Parliament now has a chance to scrutinize the commission's plan. Last time around, they weren't shy about sharing their opinion: The parliament offered hundreds of amendments to the Framework 6 proposal. The competitiveness council, comprising research ministers from all member states, will also offer comments. The commission will then submit a revised proposal, and the feedback loop will continue until the council of ministers adopts a final proposal.

That process could take up to a year and could face unexpected hurdles. In the months before Framework 6 was adopted, a coalition of countries threatened to block the entire program over funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which is restricted or even forbidden in some E.U. countries. Another fight over that issue is unlikely, because in the expanded E.U. the opponents no longer have enough votes to block the program. But some other burning issue of the day could flare to the surface.

As the process goes forward, scientists are likely to make some noise, says geneticist Kai Simons, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, and a longtime proponent of the ERC. "The change in atmosphere in the last 2 or 3 years is just incredible," he says. The commission has become more open, Simons says, but even more important is the fact that scientists have begun to make themselves heard in Brussels and are seeing real results: "Everyone realizes there are going to be real benefits from this. For the first time, they see a hope."

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