The suggestion of a European Research Council (ERC) is again in the news (Nature 419, 108–109, 200010.1038/419108a; Nature 418, 259, 2002). In the context of continued underfunding of basic research in many European Union (EU) countries, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, and the limitations of EU Framework funding, an alternative source of funds for competitive grants has to be welcomed. However, there are many problems to be anticipated if the ERC is to be effective.
Setting up an ERC now would be premature. First, the chronic state of underachievement by most EU countries in the basic sciences desperately needs attention. Governments and national funding agencies must spend substantially more money, and seriously promote more democratic and satisfying career structures, permitting scientists to fulfil their potential. Failing this, we shall never be able to compete at the European level with the United States. There seems little sign that EU member states realize the seriousness of the situation.
In principle, an ERC with an adequate level of funding and a mechanism for administering funds could at some stage make European science more competitive. But an ERC with a life-science budget less than that of the NIH, or similar to that of the UK's Wellcome Trust, for example, will be inadequate and counterproductive. Equally, an ERC that is subject to the constraints of the over-bureaucratic Framework programmes would be a disappointment. To be effective, an ERC would also need to have the means, the will, the power and the independence to change attitudes. It would need to set standards of training, career development and salaries for young scientists in much the same way as the Wellcome Trust over the past 15–20 years has dramatically raised standards in the United Kingdom.
It seems inconceivable that EU member states, many of whom underfund and fail to democratize their own national research bases, will sufficiently fund a supranational agency which they could perceive as undercutting their control over scientific policy. Any significant input of funds from the current Framework programmes, already inadequate in relation to demand, also seems unrealistic.
If insignificant amounts of money are made available to an ERC, why bother with it? It would be just another peripheral funding body, allowing member states to shrug off the more serious problems at home. In the life sciences, member governments could more effectively simply increase their contributions to the Human Frontier Science programme (well administered but chronically short of funds), or to the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) to allow expansion of its excellent graduate-student and postdoctoral programmes.
See also the Commentary, pages 249–250 of this issue — Editor, Correspondence