After two days of intense negotiations, the European Parliament last month finally approved the European Union's fifth Framework research programme (FP5), due to start next year. The budget will be ECU16.7 billion (US$18.6 billion) — only slightly higher than the ECU16.3 billion put forward by the European Commission.
As a result, a prolonged battle over the FP5 budget is now unlikely with the council of ministers, which represents the member states and is keen to keep funding as low as possible. But more problems are likely to arise over the structure of the programme.
To simplify the management of FP5 and concentrate resources, the commission wants to group projects into three thematic programmes: the living world and ecosystems, information and communication technologies, and sustainable growth. These would be accompanied by three ‘horizontal programmes’ for international cooperation, participation of small and medium-size enterprises, and a training programme called improving human potential.
The council has yet to take a formal position, but has indicated its desire to see five programmes, separating energy and environment from life sciences and giving transport a programme of its own. In contrast, the parliament does not want a special transport programme — but it does want energy and environment to be separated from life sciences into a single programme in two parts, each with its own defined budget line.
Research commissioner Edith Cresson is likely to fight this latter division, concerned that a separate environmental research programme would be vulnerable to a takeover bid from the environment commissioner.
The parliament also wants to change the commission's proposed distribution of the FP5 budget, voting to restrict the money going to nuclear research to ECU1.3 billion, compared to the commission's proposed ECU1.5 billion.
Parliament does not have decision-making responsibility for this part of the programme, which is covered by the Eureatom treaty. And differences of opinion between the two major political groups on support for nuclear fusion — the socialists would like to see much less support than the Christian democrats — meant that no position was taken on how this nuclear research budget should be divided.
The council of research ministers will meet on 12 February to decide its own position, which must be agreed unanimously. If all goes well, calls for research proposals could be put out before the end of the year.