A group of prominent European researchers today sent an open letter to the heads of all of Europe's research councils protesting against the winding up of the grant-giving activities of the European Science Foundation (ESF) so that it can be turned into a lobbying body. "How can ESF or its successor become the voice of science if scientists are no longer sustained by ESF? Scientists are the voice of science, and they will only accept ESF to speak on their behalf if they are strongly involved and feel supported by ESF," write the 16 signatories from eight European nations.
For about the past year, national research council chiefs have been discussing merging their informal organization, known as EuroHORCs, with ESF to create a new, high-profile lobbying organization that would represent the interests of research councils at the European level. While the European Union's Framework Programmes get much attention, they only account for around 5% of the region's research funding.
The research councils for each nation, in contrast, collectively pay for 85% of the research carried out in their countries.
Europe's research councils originally created ESF in 1974 to fund cross-border research projects which it has continued to do ever since, concentrating on bottom-up curiosity-driven science, with a modest budget of around €50 million annually. Under the plans being put forward by EuroHORCs, ESF's granting activities would cease and it would concentrate on policy formation and lobbying, possibly moving its headquarters from Strasbourg in France to Brussels, seat of the European Union. The changes would also require some member organizations of ESF—learned societies such as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences—to be excluded from the new, as-yet unnamed, body. This move has already caused some disquiet among those being left out.
Most ESF grant programs have already been stopped although the transformation of the foundation must await approval by a special general assembly of ESF members in May. Today's open letter complains that ending those programs will leave a gap in Europe's funding landscape. The European Union's funding programs tend to be top-down and policy-driven and the loss of ESF's programs, the signatories argue, will deprive young, dynamic researchers the chance to pursue their own ideas. "Younger scientists currently benefit to a great extent of the possibilities which ESF offers through the Research Networking Programmes (RNPs), European Collaborative Research Programmes (EUROCORES) and the European Research Conferences," the open letter says. "ESF is the emanation of its member organizations. It has served its members, scientists and science very well during more than three decades. The ESF secretariat has in the meantime built a significant experience and know-how. Please do not discard these assets, certainly not in the present period of so many uncertainties about several international initiatives," the letter adds.