Europe Launches Science Flagship

Hoping to breathe new life into the Old World's fragmented scientific community, the European Commission last week approved the first draft of a 4-year, $16.2 billion research program that seeks to focus the European Union's disparate research programs on common goals. Slated to spend 17% more than its predecessor, the so-called Framework 6 (FP6), which will begin in 2003, would spur more pan-European scientific projects by channeling funds into big-ticket collaborations and paying for more scientists to country hop.

"This is potentially tremendous for research, especially projects that involve expensive instruments, such as synchrotrons and neutron sources," says geophysicist Vincent Courtillot, research director of France's Science Ministry.

The most striking aspect of the FP6 proposal, which must run a gauntlet of European institutions before it's finalized next year, is the European Research Area (ERA) concept. The brainchild of research commissioner Philippe Busquin, the ERA is meant to reduce what Busquin calls the "fragmentation and isolation" of Europe's national research efforts (Science, 21 January 2000, p. 405). The FP6 draft proposes new ways to help national research ministries and granting agencies open up their programs to researchers in other countries; for example, the $2.8 billion proposed for "Structuring the European Research Area" includes a doubling (to nearly $1.7 billion) of the pot of money available for the popular "mobility" program that gives grants to European scientists who shift to labs in other E.U. countries.

The FP6 draft also promotes the ERA concept by encouraging larger research consortia, such as labs or institutes, to team up in applying for grants to achieve "a substantial reduction" in the number of projects and contracts. In addition, the program would hand out grants in fewer priority areas than Framework 5 now encompasses. Courtillot hopes that the new approach might "reduce the cumbersome administration" of Framework grants in Brussels.

The proposed Framework program doesn't settle one hot-button issue: the extent to which Brussels should help support and maintain expensive European facilities such as synchrotrons and Rome's European Mouse Mutant Archive. Although the FP6 draft sets aside about $830 million for infrastructure initiatives, the policies are still being debated.

Although European science managers give the FP6 draft high marks for setting noble goals, some worry about how it will be implemented. For instance, Kai Simons, director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, supports the draft's incentives to spur pan-European collaborations, but he questions whether there would be enough grants for young scientists and enough funds for "generic" research that is "not bound to anything except quality."

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