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A firm foundation?

After more than thirty years, a European science agency is struggling to establish a clear identity.

The European Science Foundation (ESF) was born before its time, in 1974 — and has suffered for it. It could have evolved into Europe's answer to the US National Science Foundation, but history decreed otherwise. Instead, it has pottered gently along, doing small things reasonably well. It has established high-quality research networks and conferences, and has published, on an ad-hoc basis, thoughtful documents on such policy issues as Europe's need for synchrotron facilities. But it has never really established a strong identity, and repeated exercises to carve out a lead role in the fragmented drama of European science have tended to fizzle out.

The latest such exercise, conducted last year at the request of its member organizations, may yet meet the same fate. It produced a somewhat watery-sounding mission statement that the ESF should serve as “a common platform for its member organisations in order to advance European research and explore new directions for research at the European level”. In practice this means little change. But the foundation promises a stronger focus on producing strategic ‘Forward Looks’ reports, which will analyse Europe's future scientific needs. Another focus will be the management of research activities generated by other organizations, such as the European Commission's Eurobiofund (see Nature 439, 244; 200610.1038/439244a).

Any grander hopes have been extinguished over the years by the steady expansion of the European research commission, allied with the inertia of the ESF's owners — some 78 national research agencies and sundry academies of science, from 30 countries.

The European Science Foundation's members have failed to deliver the money that it needed to do the job.

Despite their recognition that basic scientific research needs to be supported at the European level, ESF members failed to deliver the money that it needed to do the job. Given Europe's complex regional politics and the ever-present conflict between national and European interests, it is hard to imagine how things could have turned out differently.

Instead, the commission — whose mission has never directly included basic research — has stepped into the breach. Its vigorous and well-funded programmes for networking researchers, tangled in red tape though they may be, dwarfed the ESF's efforts. Now the creation of the European Research Council is removing the central project that would have given the ESF its most natural raison d'être.

The ESF, whose executive staff of almost 100 are ensconced next to the picturesque canals of Strasbourg, may yet find its forte. If the ‘Forward Looks’ reports are good enough, they could become influential, like those of the US National Research Council (NRC), which has no European peer. However, the NRC's reputation sits on a firm bedrock of independence — the National Academies — and it has a reliable stream of money to support its large technical staff. The ESF lacks either asset.

Europe has yet to develop a stable system of scientific institutions whose combined authority will safeguard the general well-being of European-level basic research. The ESF's new mission statement is an attempt to identify its place in that evolving system. But its member organizations must remain alert and flexible if the ESF is to remain fit enough to survive.

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A firm foundation?. Nature 439, 369–370 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/439369b

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