Europe has a plan for building large research facilities for scientists to share. Now all it needs to do is figure out which ones may actually become reality — not an easy task. Last week, a high-level meeting in Hamburg ended without concrete suggestions for which projects to take forward.

The list of facilities that European scientists would like funded is long and diverse, from biobank projects to particle accelerators. Some, such as the €360-million (US$480-million) research icebreaker Aurora Borealis and the €1-billion European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL), have already won full or partial approval. But many others, including a planned €150-million Extreme Light Infrastructure laser initiative and the €1-billion European Spallation Source (ESS) for neutron research, are still but dreams.

Thirty-five projects have been identified as key by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). But paying for them all would cost more than €14 billion. “We all know that it won't be possible to have them all,” says Beatrix Vierkorn-Rudolph, who is on the ESFRI executive board and an official at the German research ministry.

Governments of the 27 member states, together with the ESFRI and national funding agencies, now must winnow out those projects to be built from those to be abandoned. This October, they will announce which projects on the list will receive initial funding for technical design studies; an updated roadmap is to be produced by autumn 2008. Projects that are chosen for funding will require one country to take the lead, as Germany has done for the XFEL and the icebreaker.

But even that can be tricky, as negotiating the details of multinational EU projects is a notoriously cumbersome process. Building the XFEL, for example, required separate bilateral agreements between Germany and all the 12 other participating countries. And although Germany had said early on that it would cover 60% of the building costs and 75% of the operational costs, it took almost four years to finalize agreements with all partners.

The money must come from some extra pot, as the EU's seventh Framework programme for research, which runs from 2007 to 2013, has only an embryonic budget for infrastructures — just enough to fund design studies and facilitate access to existing machines. Peter Tindemans, who chairs the ESS initiative, suggests that a fraction of the EU's overall budget surplus, some €3 billion to €4 billion each year, should be put aside for funding research facilities. That's twice the current EU spending on infrastructures, and roughly equal to US spending.

“The ministers say research infrastructures are an area where Europe needs to act as a union,” says Tindemans. “Let's remind them of their promise to put their money where their mouth is.”