The long-planned creation of a new body to speak for European science was thrown into disarray yesterday at a special general assembly of the European Science Foundation (ESF) when its member organizations backed away from proposals to merge with EuroHORCs, an informal body that now represents Europe's national funding agencies. In ballots  on two options for how to proceed, neither merger plan won enough votes. "The desire to have a large majority in support [of the change] was not achieved. … We have to react to that," says ESF President Ian Halliday. "If this is so important for European science, we should have been able to get near unanimity."
The plan  put forward by the funding agencies is to merge EuroHORCs with ESF—which they largely fund—to create a new group (with the suitably catch-all working title of Science Europe) to formulate science policy and lobby on behalf of the agencies. National agencies provide around 85% of Europe's research funding and they want to have a bigger influence on Europe's overall science strategy; the European Union seems to be calling the shots in areas of science policy, they say.
A working group spent much of the last year hammering out the details of creating Science Europe. It was decided that the new organization should have only agencies that fund or carry out research as members, so national science academies that act only as learned societies (some of which are currently ESF members) would be excluded - a move that has drawn criticism  from academies. The proposed merger would also spell the end of ESF's own funding activities, much to the dismay  of some researchers who say that it provides essential support for young researchers and pan-European networks engaged in curiosity-driven research.
The working group came up with two options for how to proceed: create an entirely new organization based in Brussels while closing EuroHORCs and winding down ESF; or transform the existing ESF, with its headquarters in Strasbourg, open a branch office in Brussels, and fold EuroHORCs. According to Craig Bardsley, head of Science Europe's pilot office in Brussels, a mid-April meeting of EuroHORCs in Istanbul favored option one. "The EuroHORCs vote was clear," he says. But things were not so clear at ESF's special general assembly in Frankfurt yesterday. Representatives of a number of organizations made speeches and took "some rather unexpected positions," says Halliday. "It was a real debate in real time." Because option one calls for the dissolution of ESF it requires a two-thirds majority, which it failed to achieve by only a few votes. Option two needs a simple majority, which it didn't reach by a wider margin. "There was no clear mandate," says Halliday.
It is far from clear now how the proposed merger can move forward. "Everyone will have to take a deep breath," says Halliday. "The formal decision to close ESF is not on the table. How do we play that?" Discussions will continue at a meeting of ESF's governing council next week. "It's a moment for reflection, consultation, and dialogue, " says geologist Jean-Pierre Henriet of the University of Gent in Belgium, a spokesperson for the Eulenspiegel Action group that has opposed the stopping of ESF funding. He calls on ESF and EuroHORCs to reveal more specific details of the two options that were discussed—only the barest details have been made public. "It's time to play with open cards. Why remain secretive?" he says. "They cannot gamble with the future of science and education in Europe like that."