Open Letters Fly as ESF Nears Key Vote on Future

A flurry of open letters have been flitting across Europe this week in the run-up to a special general assembly of the European Science Foundation (ESF), which is about to make a key decision on its future as a research funding agency. On 4 and 5 May, the assembly will decide whether ESF should continue funding cross-border research and networks, or should transform into a new body formulating research strategy and lobbying on behalf of Europe's national funding bodies. A recently-formed group of researchers, calling themselves Eulenspiegel Action, has been lobbying hard against the transformation, arguing that dropping ESF's grant-giving activities will be a loss for Europe-wide, curiosity-driven science.

Many members of ESF—including agencies such as Germany's Max Planck Society and the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council—are also part of an informal grouping called European Heads of Research Councils, or EuroHORCs. Last year, EuroHORCS decided they wanted to have a bigger voice in matters of European science policy. As they provide most of the funding for ESF, they proposed merging it with EuroHORCS and transforming it into a new science policy organization. Support for cross-border research is now available from other sources, such as the European Union, they argued, so ESF's granting function was no longer needed.

But national academies of science that do not fund research, which are currently also members of ESF, expressed doubts about the transformation because they would be excluded from the new body.

Eulenspiegel Action joined the debate this year, arguing that the funding from the European Union is too policy-driven and that blue skies research will lose out if ESF's funding activities are abandoned. Yesterday, some younger members of Eulenspiegel Action said in an open letter to ESF President Ian Halliday that ESF should continue to fund research projects aimed at creating European networks and to provide grants that foster mobility for young researchers and technicians.

"Science organizations should NOT evolve into lobbying offices," the letter says, and it calls for more debate on the proposal to transform ESF: "Whether scientists agree with this option has not been assessed since up to now (a few days before the vote) no information about the objectives, activities, road map or budget of this new organization has been publicized and therefore no discussion with practising scientists could have been carried out."

Halliday responded, stating, "We are in a very fluid situation between the different options. It is a very curious situation where we are all agreed on the major aspirations and aims but are having difficult differences of opinion as to how to achieve these aspirations."

In response, Jean-Pierre Henriet of Ghent University in Belgium, a spokesperson for Eulenspiegel Action, called on ESF to stick to the vision and road map that its governing council agreed to in 2008. "Winding the clock back to pre-ESF times of duplication of infrastructures and waste of resources would not be a progress," he wrote.