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Europe elects a research council

July 27, 2005 By Sonja Schubert This article courtesy of Nature News.

Scientists cheer choice of members.

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It has been a long road, but Europe has now named the scientific advisors of the first basic research funding agency to stretch across the continent.

The European Research Council (ERC) will be the area's first international funding agency for basic research in all fields, including the social sciences and humanities.

"It will be like the Champions League, which raises the standard in soccer. So shall the ERC raise the standard of scientific research in Europe," says Robert May, president of Britain's Royal Society and now member of the ERC.

It will be like the Champions League, which raises the standard in soccer. So shall the ERC raise the standard of scientific research in Europe.
Robert May
President of Britain's Royal Society
Europeans have been calling for such a funding agency for years. At the moment, all countries in Europe have their own national funding bodies.

There is also a Europe-wide 'framework' research programme that provides some grants, but this is run by the European Commission and is designed to fulfil general policies such as ensuring industrial competitiveness.

Researchers have complained that this makes it hard to compete for money for more basic research.

First steps

On 18 July, the 22 researchers that will make up the ERC were finally announced by an independent search committee, chaired by Chris Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford, UK.

Although the group will not really be up and running for another two years, this practical step will get it started. The council will meet for the first time in October.

The ERC has failed to achieve total independence from the commission, however. It will be financed as part of the seventh framework programme for research, which launches in 2007.

Still, researchers say it will have the freedom to make decisions based on non-political motivations. The council's budget hasn't been decided yet, but is likely to be between €1 billion (US$1.2 billion) and €1.5 billion a year.

All together now

The chosen council members span a wide range of fields. They are a "very good mix of expertise and nationalities", says member Claudio Bordignon, a medical geneticist at Milan's San Raffaele Institute.

"It's a good bunch of people, which is very reassuring," adds May. A full list of the members and their biographies can be found . here.

But whether the council will run smoothly has yet to be seen. Some anticipate problems. The relatively large size of the council may prove unwieldy, says May: "The most efficient work arises from boards with no more than a dozen members."

Others are concerned that the ERC's commitment to supporting scientists on the sole criterion of excellence will make it hard for some countries to compete.

And of the 22 members, only 5 are women. But member Leena Peltonen-Palotie, a geneticist at Finland's University of Helsinki, says that this is "a step in the right direction".

Unstructured approach

As for the structure of the committee and how it will actually work, that's all still up in the air.

Some members, including Michal Kleiber, currently the minister of science and information technology for Poland, say the council should start with one scientific area and then widen its grants to other subjects.

Others, such as sociologist Helga Nowotny, who chairs the European Research Advisory Board of the European Commission, say the council "must definitely launch in all scientific areas".

The ERC will have an executive agency to implement the council's suggestions. Again, it has not been decided how this will work, but scientists emphasize that it should remain independent of the commission and other political interests. The US National Science Foundation is often cited as a good model.

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