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Over the past two years, a new political impetus has been given to European science through the concept of the European Research Area (ERA) articulated by Philippe Busquin, Commissioner for Research of the European Union (EU) ( 1, 2). The ERA is a concept that attempts to catalyze coherence and to mobilize joint efforts across Europe with the aim of improving Europe?s research capacity in global competition. No single country in Europe is able to compete with the American research effort, but working together and in the right way, we should be at least on par with our American competitors and colleagues. Busquin provided the badly needed political weight behind the idea, which was subsequently endorsed at the highest political level?the European Council of Heads of Government. However, there remain issues that need to be resolved.

The European Union?s Framework Programme (FP) will be a contributor to the implementation of the ERA. However, the FP is not primarily devoted to basic research and, furthermore, the great majority (95%) of the funding available for research in Europe is nationally based within the research agencies of the various countries. Therefore, the ERA will never be properly implemented without a strong commitment from the EU countries.

What should we do now to make the ERA concept more concrete? We need to establish an appropriate at arm's length from the governments and avoid the problems of "juste retour" (in which the Member State?s contributions are expected to be returned). This structure, a European Research Council (ERC), would use the best practices of national scientific funding through peer review and would be accessible to Europe?s research community. Such a project, however, needs debate at all levels.

Who will provide the resources for an ERC? Ultimately, funds will need to come from national sources, perhaps augmented from the communal budget of the EU. This will not be easy to achieve because, paradoxically, scientific research?although by nature an international endeavour?is viewed as a national funding responsibility and national governments and their agencies jealously guard their independence and sovereignty. Realization of the ERC demands that governments at the highest level be prepared to honour their political commitments, overcome their suspicions and lack of interest in changing the status quo, and take a bold step forward.

Diversity of funding sources is healthy. I am not advocating the replacement of national systems by the ERC, but the use of the ERC to provide a new source of appropriate competition, to set a benchmark for national research endeavors, and thus to improve quality at all levels in the process of knowledge generation. The ERC should not be seen as just another bureaucracy but rather as a source of creativity.

We are not starting ab initio in such a design. The European Science Foundation has been in existence as an association of the national research funding agencies for more than a quarter of a century concentrating on coordination mechanisms and support. Recently, anticipating the new needs for joint European funding, ESF has introduced its EUROCORES scheme for collaborative research ( 3). This is an open scheme in which national funding agencies, on a voluntary basis, come together to support a priority topic through a joint Call and Programme specification and a single international peer-review process, but with the grants being implemented at the national level. So we are halfway there already and accumulating experience daily on the operation of funding mechanisms at the European level. New internal structures in the ESF could be put into place to cope with added responsibility for funding. This is on top of the existing networking and cooperation experience which exists in Europe, and which is a European strength compared to the United States.

Strong European-wide organizations should be seen as reinforcing each other rather than being in competition. The Framework Programme would set European political objectives and the ERC would provide the science base with a European support structure.

Europe must show its best face in setting up the structures that it needs for its research and development. It has done so in the past with the far-sighted vision of cooperative science exemplified in European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), European Southern Observatory (ESO), and European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). What it now needs is the same far-sighted vision in creating a European support structure for science?the European Research Council.

References and Notes

1.See http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/area/preface_en.html

2.See http://cordis.lu/rtd2002/era/era.html

3.See http://www.esf.org/esf_activity_home.php?language=0&activity=7&domain=0