Europe Kicks Off "Champions' League" for Grants

BERLIN--For once, scientists had nothing but praise for the European Union. A star-studded gathering here of European researchers and politicians--including German Chancellor Angela Merkel--formally launched the European Research Council (ERC) today. Ecstatic scientists say the new funding body, modeled on U.S. agencies such as the National Science Foundation, marks a fresh start for European science policy. But they had a clear message for Europe's politicians: Keep your hands off.

Until recently, there was little love lost between researchers and the E.U. Scientists have long bemoaned Europe's Framework Programmes for their focus on applied research, the forced collaboration between many labs and companies across the continent, the crippling bureaucracy, and what many see as too much meddling by politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels (Science, 8 December 2006).

ERC promises a clean break. Although a part of the Seventh Framework Program, ERC will focus on fundamental science, reward individuals rather than networks, offer easy paperwork, and will be governed by scientists. ERC grants will also be "portable": Researchers can take them along as they switch institutions if they want. Although quite common in the U.S., the concept is new to Europe.

ERC "is a revolutionary development," says Imperial College London biologist Fotis Kafatos, who chairs the agency's scientific council. Kafatos hopes that ERC's grants will be so prestigious--he calls it "a champions' league of science"--that universities will compete to attract grantees by offering them excellent amenities. That might also to help retain top talent in Europe and lure back those working abroad, he adds.

So far, ERC's scientific council--which counts many luminaries among its 22 members--is guarding its independence jealously, says Vice President Helga Nowotny. For instance, when the European Commission suggested a list of scientists who could serve on ERC's peer review panels, the council gave it a look, she says--but decided to go with its own list instead. Staying at arm's length from Brussels will be crucial to ERC's success, says John Marks, director of science and strategy at the European Science Foundation, a group of national funding agencies.

Staff at ERC's Brussels bureau are still working frantically to prepare for the expected flood of applications. ERC should be able to handle up to 3000 proposals for the 200 grants it has available in 2007, Nowotny says; "if it's twice that number, we'll have a problem." This year's grants, worth € 1.5 million on average, will go to young scientists; larger grants of up to € 2.5 million for senior researchers will become available in 2008.

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