Reprinted with permission of Science News, 25 June 2004

BERLIN--Researchers got some good news from the European Union last week, but with a sting in the tail. The European Commission (EC), the E.U.'s executive body, committed itself on 16 June to creating a new funding body that will support fundamental research based on quality alone, something researchers have wanted for several years ( Science, 2 January, p. 23). But the EC intends to bankroll this European Research Council (ERC) by doubling the budget of its vast and unwieldy Framework program from its current $6 billion to an average of $12 billion per year from 2007 to 2013.

In its current form, Framework concentrates on applied research and will only fund collaborations between labs in more than one member state. It has been roundly criticized by researchers for being a bureaucratic nightmare. A campaign has been building for an ERC more sympathetic to the needs of basic researchers and separate from the E.U. bureaucracy. One group of scientists called on the E.U. to cut the Framework budget in half and divert the extra money to launching an ERC.

The EC's latest proposal, however, points in the opposite direction. It has called for the budget of the next multiyear program, Framework 7, to double that of Framework 6--with part of the increase going to launch an ERC within the program. The expanded budget would also include new funding for space science and security research. "This is what we've been fighting for," says Erwin Neher of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, and a member of the EC's European Research Advisory Board (EURAB). "That the commission has grabbed on to this idea is a very good sign."

Supporters of the ERC have worried that any program administered by the E.U. would have the same headaches as Framework, but Mogens Flensted-Jensen of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Frederiksberg, Denmark, who helped organize one of the first meetings calling for an ERC, says he is optimistic. "If they decide to spend more money, I think we will see a semi-independent ERC" funded by Framework 7.

Any funding increase has to be approved by the Member States' finance ministers and the newly elected European Parliament. But the political momentum is behind the EC's proposal, says Helga Nowotny of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and president of EURAB. Recently, a panel of economists advising EC President Romano Prodi recommended increasing funds for science, she notes. And the Netherlands, whose science minister, Maria van der Hoeven, is a strong supporter of an ERC, takes over the rotating E.U. presidency in July.

The next concrete step should come when science ministers from Member States meet on 2 July to discuss the EC's proposal, Nowotny says: "If nothing moves there, it would be a big step backwards."