Published online 6 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.977

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Radical shift proposed for funding European research

Half of EU research budget should be spent on frontier science, say science advisers.

scientistIndependent agencies — not Brussels bureaucrats — should decide how the EU spends research funds, according to ERAB.Punchstock

Responsibility for managing and allocating funding for European research should be devolved from the European Commission to independent agencies, including the European Research Council (ERC), an advisory board has suggested.

The ERC was set up in 2007 as a pan-European initiative to fund frontier research judged solely on excellence. It allocates €7.5 billion (US$11 billion) out of the €50-billion pot for research in the European Union's (EU's) Seventh Framework Programme, which began in 2007 and runs until 2013.

In a report presented to the commission today, the European Research Area Board (ERAB), which advises the commission, says: "A new governance model for arms-length agencies to deliver research and innovation in Europe is essential for our global position."

John Wood, ERAB's chair, told Nature: "We need a radical rethink about how research is funded in Europe."

He said a model based on independent agencies would allow "greater flexibility" in the research that is funded, including new ideas that "don't fit" into the Framework programme.

New needs

By 2030, half of the EU's funds for research should go towards frontier research, it recommends. Funds from the EU budget used for agricultural subsidies could be redirected towards research so that its share triples to 12%, the report suggests.

“We need a radical rethink about how research is funded in Europe.”

John Wood
ERAB

The remaining half of the EU budget for research should fund directed programmes that focus on a small number of "grand challenges", such as climate change, energy supply and ageing societies. This contrasts with funding for the Framework programme, in which money is spread over a large number of research areas that have changed little since the first programme started in 1984.

The report also backs the plan announced on 15 September by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, to create a European chief scientist. Europe needs a chief scientific adviser "who can speak with authority on behalf of the EU", says Wood.

Wood says ERAB will thrash out further details over the next three months on how its proposals should be taken forward. It hopes to present concrete plans on the role of Europe's chief scientist for discussion at a meeting next May.

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Dieter Imboden, president of the European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs), but speaking here in a personal capacity, says he agrees that the "structure of the research system has to be adapted to the new needs of transnational research".

But he says: "The real challenge for ERAB still lies ahead." The board needs to put forward "concrete steps" that can feed into the planning of the next Framework programme to ensure its vision for the future of EU research becomes a reality.

Janez Potočnik, commissioner for science and research, welcomed the report. "Its recommendations, some of which have already found their way into President Barroso's political guidelines for the next Commission, will stimulate new discussions on how to address the challenges facing European research and usher in a new 'Renaissance'," Potočnik added. 

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