Relatively speaking, it's a discipline that doesn't cost much — and its value is beyond measure. Yet research into the conservation of Europe's vast cultural heritage has few real champions. Its best friend is Italy, the only country in the European Union (EU) that provides serious national funding for research into the preservation of monuments, ancient ruins and archaeological sites.

But even Italians concede that the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, is no more representative of Europe's heritage than, say, the historic centre of a village in Norway. Conservation efforts should be truly European in scope, not only to acknowledge Europe's cultural unity — which is supposedly central to the EU charter — but for technical reasons, too. It is widely accepted, for example, that the standardization of procedures for building preservation will save money and help to efficiently share out the limited pool of available expertise.

For 15 years, the European Commission has shown itself sensitive to these issues. Its approach recognized the fact that national efforts outside Italy tend to be narrowly focused and piecemeal. Unfortunately, however, the commission's proposal for the next Framework research programme, which starts in 2003, makes no mention of the conservation of cultural heritage. National governments, it implies, should handle the problem themselves. This attitude is short-sighted.

The list of research needed for heritage conservation is long, and underlines the need for continued support from the EU. Thresholds for air quality should be set, for example, with building conservation goals in mind. Research is badly needed into the interactions between ancient building materials and the modern alternatives used in restoration. Movement of the water table, which is affected by global warming and controls the destiny of buried archaeological ruins, needs to be better understood. Italy knows it cannot afford to let Venice float away to sea, but the rest of Europe needs to ensure that other aspects of its valuable heritage are preserved for future generations.