BERLIN--European scientists have long dreamed of a continentwide version of the U.S. National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation. That vision took a step toward reality last week, when a panel set up to advise European Union research ministers laid out a detailed proposal for a $2.3-billion-a-year fund to support basic research. The plan is not as radical as some earlier proposals, at best amounting to a miniature version of the U.S. grantmaking bodies. But it "is going in the right direction," says Frank Gannon, executive director of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany.
Europeans already have their own national research agencies, as well as the European Union's Framework 6 program that is slated to spend nearly $20 billion over the next 5 years on E.U. research. But Framework 6 has long been dogged by complaints that it is too bureaucratic and skewed too heavily toward applied projects (Science, 8 November 2002, p. 1163). To compete with the United States and Japan, many science leaders argue, Europe needs a fund to support basic research across all disciplines; the notion of a European Research Council (ERC) began to take shape early last year.
The ERC Expert Group was set up in April to examine the options. Its interim report, issued on 25 September, calls on the E.U. to allot at least 2 billion euros per year to a new European Fund for Basic Research. The fund would be included in the Framework 7 budget, starting in 2007, but it would be administered by an independent ERC led by "eminent researchers," the report says.
Early discussions had aimed to establish the ERC outside of Framework--perhaps even outside the E.U. altogether--but Gannon says that the proposal to work within the system is wise. "It makes political sense that the E.U. would be the owners of this," he says, particularly because new money for the ERC is far more likely to come from the E.U. budget than from national science agencies.
The interim report is open for comment through November, with a final version sent to the E.U. research ministers in December. They are expected to welcome the proposal, says Enric Banda, secretary-general of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg. The more difficult job, he says, will be selling the plan to the economic and finance ministers who hold the E.U. purse strings.