LONDON--The European Commission this week announced its plans for a radical shake-up of the European Union's (EU's) main multibillion-dollar research effort. The commission intends to focus the Framework program on six sprawling topics, from ecosystem resources to information technologies--compared to the 20 it now supports--and take tighter control of the program by putting detailed funding decisions in the hands of managers instead of program committees.
Begun in 1984, Framework funds international collaborative research projects--particularly those supporting European industry--that are beyond the scope of national programs and involves tens of thousands of EU scientists. But the program was lambasted last February as "unfocused" and "underachieving" in a key report by a panel chaired by Etienne Davignon, a former EU research commissioner.
In response to the criticism, the commission's plans for Framework 5 (FW5), which is expected to spend at least $14 billion from 1998 to 2002, "should represent a decisive change from the four preceding programs," the commission said in a statement. The plan whittles 20 funding areas down to six: the living world and ecosystem; information society; competitive and sustainable growth; international role of European research; innovation and participation of small enterprises; and improving human potential. But the proposed FW5 programs are so broad that it's unclear which projects from Framework 4 will lose support.
The commission also intends to tighten the management reins by shifting decision-making power back to itself and away from program committees, made up of national representatives, which will no longer select and finance individual projects. And to better respond to emerging or unanticipated research needs, such as mad cow disease, the commission plans to retain more flexibility by holding back part of the total funds dedicated to each of the six programs at the start of FW5.
The commission's blueprint for change will get its first real test next month when the 15 member governments debate it in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. EU governments and the European Parliament must ultimately approve the plan early next year. Says one government official: "There's a long, tough period of negotiation ahead."