Big changes are afoot in European research. The European Union's new Framework Programme (FP), and the associated push to create the European Research Area (ERA) (see Box 1), starts later this year. At the same time, the EU enlargement process is entering its final phase. Up to 13 additional countries could become EU member states within the next few years (see Box 2), with the first applicant countries joining as early as 2004.

But change does not come without problems. Reason enough for the European Commission, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), and the European Liaison Office of the German Research Organisations ( KoWi) to host an event to discuss the risks, benefits, and consequences for science of the enlargement process. Needless to say the conference, "European enlargement: new opportunities for research funding", held at the Bonn Science Centre last week, drew a high response from both current EU member states and candidate countries.

European Research Area (ERA) and the 6th Framework Programme (FP 6)

The EU organises its research under framework programmes, each lasting 4 to 5 years. The current fifth Framework Programme (FP 5) is due to be replaced by FP 6 later in 2002. Running until 2006, FP 6 has a likely budget of ? 17.5 billion.

The European Research Area (ERA) is the European Commission's proposal to harmonise and structure research activities across Europe. It was outlined in a 38-page document " Towards a European Research Area" in early 2000.

FP 6 will have three targets: integrating research across Europe, structuring the ERA, and strengthening the ERA by simplifying and streamlining the way it is implemented. The integration of research will focus on seven priority areassuch as 'Genomics and biotechnology for health' and 'Nanotechnologies, intelligent materials, and new production processes'.

Additional information about ERA and FP 6 can be found on the CORDIS Web server.

An entire session was devoted to the situation of young scientists and how to improve the mobility of young researchers in the enlarged Europe. Georges Bingen, responsible for the Commission's Marie Curie fellowships unit, explained how the Marie Curie scheme would benefit young scientists and the ERA by providing maximum continuity and increased flexibility under FP 6.

One of the candidate countries' biggest concerns is that greater researcher mobility will increase the brain drain from Central and Eastern European countries to the West. Of all the candidates selected for Marie Curie fellowships under FP 5 up to February 2002, 14% of fellowship holders have moved from candidate countries to the EU. On the other hand, only 0.5% of fellowship holders have moved from the EU to one of the applicant countries. Dietrich Elchlepp of the BMBF suggested that one of the reasons why few researchers go to the candidate countries is that the institutions are unknown to most people in Western Europe. He advised the candidate countries to consider undertaking efforts to raise the awareness of their universities and research centres among scientists in EU member states.

European Research Area (ERA) and the 6th Framework Programme (FP 6)

EU Enlargement Candidate Countries

In March 1998, the EU formally launched the process that will make enlargement possible. It embraces the following 13 applicant countries:

  • Bulgaria

  • Cyprus

  • Czech Republic

  • Estonia

  • Hungary

  • Latvia

  • Lithuania

  • Malta

  • Poland

  • Romania

  • Slovak Republic

  • Slovenia

  • Turkey

For further information about the EU enlargement process, please go to the EU's Enlargement Web site.

The changes to the Marie Curie fellowship scheme under FP 6 include several that will widen eligibility. For the first time, the scheme will be open to third-country nationals, making researchers from the Americas or Asia eligible as well. The age limit--currently only researchers younger than 35 can apply--has been abolished. There are new incentives to return to Europe from abroad as well. Whereas FP 5 only offered return salary cost fellowships for researchers returning to the Community's less-favoured regions, FP 6 will introduce reintegration grants for researchers returning to all EU countries or Associated States.

Earlier in the day, Eastern European scientists had raised their fears that the research playing field will not be even. "All players are playing by the same rules, but do not have the same opportunities at the beginning. They are coming from different starting places", said Dr. Karel Jungwirth, former vice president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, pointing out the weaker research infrastructure situation in most of the candidate countries. Professor Wojciech Maciejewski of the Polish University Rectors' Conference in Warsaw added his worry that integrated projects--as proposed by the Commission in FP 6--would only mean big projects, which would disadvantage smaller countries.

Dr. Achilleas Mitsos, the Commission's research director-general, expressed his understanding for these concerns, but pointed out at the same time: "The issue is not big projects versus small projects. It's not the size of the project that makes it more or less efficient. The objective is not to go for big against small, but to go for integrated instead of dispersed efforts." Mitsos assured the candidate countries that would fully participate in FP 6: "The Commission's view is that it wants to be sure the candidate countries will fully participate, and therefore will not bring about proposals that will make it difficult to do this."

European scientists are on the brink of uncharted territory. Not only must Western European researchers learn more about the capabilities of their Central and Eastern neighbours, but they must all learn to think in a more integrated way. It remains to be seen whether the ERA experiment will give results.