A coordinated approach to scientific infrastructure across Europe came a step closer last week, when a high-level meeting in Strasbourg endorsed a proposal to set up a permanent body to advise the European Commission on such a strategy.
The body would be made up of science administrators from member states of the European Union (EU) and representatives of the commission. It had been proposed by the steering committee of a conference held in Strasbourg on the funding and maintenance of European research infrastructures.
Keen to speed up the planning and implementation of joint facilities, several speakers at the meeting also suggested that the European Science Foundation (ESF) should assess and advise on ways of matching infrastructure needs and resources in the EU.
Such needs include electronic communication networks, databases for the natural and social sciences, telescopes, synchrotron radiation machines, research vessels, and centres in animal and plant physiology.
At present, setting up multinational research facilities under the auspices of the EU requires multilateral — and often cumbersome — agreements between all member states. Many European scientists and science organizations complain that this delays funding decisions relative to the United States and Japan. Science administrators, particularly in the smaller European countries, also complain that it is difficult to get their voice heard in planning new facilities.
“We keep hawking about our plans for a new medium-scale European neutron source,” Raoul Kneucker, director-general of the Austrian science ministry, told the meeting. “But obviously there is no relevant panel in the EU where we could go to.”
Speakers in Strasbourg suggested that a permanent strategic body could fill the hole. Its role, they said, would be to pave the way for scientific needs to become political funding decisions, in collaboration with the commission and EU member states.
“This would give stability and continuity to the process [and] facilitate a network of decision-makers and funders and hopefully increase the speed of the decision making process,” the meeting's steering committee concluded in a formal proposal.
The Strasbourg meeting was organized by the European Commission and the ESF. Senior ESF officials helped to draft the recommendations that were endorsed, including the proposal to set up an advisory group.
Philippe Busquin, the research commissioner, backs the idea of such a group. “A network of pan-European research infrastructures can become a major component of the European Research Area,” Busquin told Nature (see Nature 405, 873; 2000). “I am happy about the high level of agreement reached at this important meeting.”
Busquin says that he also welcomes the steering group's recommendation that the commission increase its financial support for building and running common research facilities and giving scientists access to them.
This would be good news for two European life-science facilities, the European Mouse Mutant Archive (EMMA) near Rome and the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) near Cambridge. Both are in financial difficulties because the rules of the EU's current Fifth Framework Programme exclude such costs from funding.
“The Sixth Framework Programme [FP6], starting in 2003, will certainly contain elements which will help solve the problems of facilities such as EMMA and EBI,” predicts Busquin.
Indeed, a proposal to increase infrastructure funding reflects the commission's intention to revise its whole approach under FP6. According to one official, the commission proposes to give less money to small, scattered projects which are often of questionable effectiveness (see Nature 404, 695; 2000). The money freed up could then be spent on infrastructure, he says.
“But the commission's role in the funding of infrastructure can only be that of a minority partner, who can hopefully catalyse initiatives,” says Busquin, adding that the commission has neither the money nor the power to set up large research facilities without support from member states.
Speaking at last week's meeting, government representatives welcomed proposals to make greater use of the 'variable geometry' approach, under which countries can choose whether to participate in funding particular research facilities.
But an official from the German research ministry points out that governments' enthusiasm for collaboration on research infrastructure is likely to vanish if the costs of new facilities exceed the benefits to the national science base.