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Europe Makes It Easier to Build Big Science

While scientists celebrated at the end of last month that the European Spallation Source (ESS) had taken a step closer to reality when research ministers chose a site at Lund, Sweden, to build it, the ministers quietly made another decision that may turn out to be just as important for European research. The ministers agreed on a standard legal framework for European research facilities, giving them supra-national legal status, exempting them from VAT (sales tax), and laying down rules on how they are governed, funded, and managed. “It will bring down barriers to investments in science and research,” Miroslava Kopicová,  the Czech Minister of Education, Youth and Sports who pushed for the framework, told Science|Business.

Up until now, every time a group of countries wanted to work together to build a joint facility, they had to go through the lengthy legal process of drawing up an agreement, getting it checked by all the parties, and getting everyone together again to sign it. Facilities such as CERN and ITER are governed by international treaties, which required heroic efforts of diplomacy to put together. Other recently approved facilities, including European XFEL x-ray facility in Hamburg, Germany, and the FAIR international accelerator facility in Darmstadt, Germany, were set up as limited companies under German law, which made some of the international partners uncomfortable. As a result, some E.U. nations called on the European Commission to draw up a standard legal framework that all future facilities could adopt, streamlining the process. ESS, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2012 if a firm coalition of partners is finalized soon, could be the first facility to benefit from the new legal framework.