European Research Infrastructure: Good Intentions, But Not Much Progress

Science policymakers, funders, and researchers spent 2 days this week in Barcelona, Spain, mulling over the problem of how to shift much needed big-ticket research facilities from drawing-board to construction site. But while the Sixth European Conference on Research Infrastructures, ECRI2010, had little problem identifying what was needed, solutions were thin on the ground.

In the United States getting a new research facility built usually involves persuading one huge funding organization that it is essential. In Europe you have to persuade many smaller funders, all of whom have different procedures, priorities, budget cycles, and even languages, and then coax them to work together. The European Union realized that researchers needed a helping hand and so created the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). In 2006 ESFRI published a road map, listing 35 proposed projects deemed by peer review to be worthy of pan-European interest. This wish-list was updated in 2008 and enlarged to 44 research infrastructures.

The ESFRI imprimatur gave a much needed boost to many projects on the verge of approval and some of these are now under construction. The European Union has also distributed €135 million to 34 different projects to help them complete design studies and form collaborations for construction and operation. All remaining ESFRI projects will receive such preparatory funding this year, says Hervé Pero, head of the Research Infrastructure Unit in the E.U.'s research directorate. At the end of last year, 10 different ESFRI projects were either under construction or about to start, another eight had formed collaborations, and 11 others were under negotiation, Pero adds.

While the ESFRI road map gave the field of infrastructures a big boost, frustration about the pace of progress has been growing. Many ESFRI projects get stuck in the decision-making process over issues such as where to build it—often only one member of a collaboration gets to play host—and the governance and funding model. The European Union has attempted to break the governance logjam by publishing last August a standard legal framework for the creation of a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC). "There is a need for a motor in the system to allow projects to move forward towards implementation within a coordinated decision, legal, governance and financial framework." said an open letter from the coordinators of 17 ESFRI projects.

Few of those present at the ECRI conference seemed to disagree. Many supported the idea that the decision-making process towards construction should be orchestrated from above and that ESFRI projects should be prioritized. Yet these good intentions were left hanging, without any concrete plans on how to carry them out. If anything, they posed more questions such as who could take on the role of shepherding projects towards construction, and with ESFRI projects already selected on excellence, what other criteria should be used for prioritization? Setting priorities will be a difficult process, especially when looking across different needs and different disciplines, says Anneli Pauli, the E.U.'s deputy director-general of research.

"I think we've gone backwards," John Wood, a former ESFRI chair, told departing delegates. "We need to get this thing moving. Your credibility will go down immensely if [all] 44 [research infrastructures are] not under way in the next 4-5 years."