New opportunities for early career scientists to work at the interface of computer science and other scientific disciplines are expected to open up in Europe in the coming years as Microsoft plans to invest big money in European science.

Announced by Bill Gates at the Government Leaders Forum in Prague last February, the Microsoft European Science Initiative will create new centres of excellence in Europe and boost the career development of young scientists via new graduate and postdoctoral fellowship programs. The multi-year programme, which will look into establishing partnerships between Microsoft and European institutions, will be coordinated at Microsoft's Cambridge Office.

Research in Computing and Sciences

The initiative is designed to stimulate collaborative research at the interface of computing and the sciences, including biology, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, materials science, immunology, and ecology. The initiative also aims to "encourage increased innovation and productivity in support of the Lisbon Agenda goals," says Microsoft's External Research Office Director, Professor Stephen Emmott. In the Lisbon Agenda, the EU pledged to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010. "In line with this spirit, we want to drive growth and make more jobs available in Europe's knowledge-based economy," says Emmott.

A key part of the Microsoft European Science Initiative is in the creation of a network of centres of excellence (CoEs) tied to key research institutions throughout Europe. The first of these is the Microsoft Research - University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology in Trento, Italy, which was launched at the Government Leaders Forum in February. The centre was funded with 15 million Euro for the first 5 years as a joint venture between Microsoft, local and central governments, and the University of Trento.

Researchers at the Trento centre will focus on creating the next generation of computational tools to enable scientists to better understand and predict complex processes in biological systems. Tools like these could provide new insights into the origin of disease and lead to the design of new therapies. The Centre will be active next autumn, following a first round of recruitment. "We plan to start recruiting 15 people at different levels of their career now, and another 15 in the next years," says Corrado Priami, head of Bioinformatics Group, at the University of Trento.

According to Emmott, additional Microsoft Research CoEs will be established in the coming months, and discussions are underway with select research institutes in France, Germany, and the UK.

New Scholarship and Fellowship Programmes

The European Science Initiative also includes a new PhD scholarship programme. As many as 30 PhD students will be selected to receive a bursary of up to 30,000 Euro annually for as many as 3 years, along with a Tablet PC, and money for travel to workshops and scientific meetings. At the end of the second year of their PhD, some of the students may be offered a paid summer internship at Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Eligibility for the scholarship programme is limited to European PhD students who have been at a European institution for less than a year and have a background in computing, electronic engineering, or mathematics. Individuals may not apply directly; all applications must be made through the PhD institution. Applications will be invited each year. (The next deadline is 17 April, 2005.)

Microsoft has also launched a 2-year Fellowship Programme for post-doctoral scientists. The initiative will grant up to 10 fellowships of up to €250,000, to cover the fellow's salary and basic equipment for two years. "We want to identify incredibly talented people and help them in their early career," says Emmott, "believing that usually the first 2 years of a postdoc are the most crucial and productive in terms of intellectual growth and data production." Postdoc fellowship applicants need to be European nationals and be based in Europe to enter the Microsoft programme. More details of when and how to apply will be announced next spring.

According to Emmott, Microsoft expects both funding programmes to be highly competitive. In addition to an excellent scientific background, postdoc fellows in particular must also have excellent skills in computing. Not least, they should be passionate about a research challenge at the interface between computing and the sciences.

But for those who will succeed in securing Microsoft funding or getting enrolled in a Microsoft Centre of Excellence, the initiative will be a great opportunity to explore new horizons in computer research while getting involved with a giant of the informatics -- and staying in Europe.