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EC wants €70bn for science

Double the budget over 10 years

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The EU's science budget could be doubled to €10bn a year, the European Commission says in its initial proposal for the next science programme, Framework 7 (FP7), to cover the years 2007-2013. The EC has costed the total for FP7 at &euro:70bn.

However, much debate is expected in the snakepit of EU politics before details of how much exactly will be allocated, and how it will be spent, is finalised.

In June, the European Council - the conclave of Europeans heads of government - will meet in Brussels to settle the total size of the EU funding pie of around a trillion euros for the next seven years. This has to cover all areas of EU spending, from security, to agriculture, eurocrats' wages to the international motorway network.

The commission, and the EU's poorer countries, want more than this - equivalent to 1.24 per cent of member states' GNP - for the EU budget. But Britain, Germany, Sweden and some other richer countries - fed up with being the EU's paymasters over the decades - have indicated they want to cap spending at one per cent of member states' GNP.

A cap would be bad news for the commission's science proposal, which covers such areas as health, food, agriculture and biotechnology, nanosciences, energy, and communication technologies. Without an increase in the EU's budget, there would be no scope for extra science funding.

The EU's white elephant, the common agricultural policy, comprises nearly half the EU's budget and has been fixed to 2013, after a stitch-up deal a few years back between main CAP beneficiary France and Germany. Regional funds, the second biggest expenditure, could be a politically-sensitive issue if reduced, since they are allocated to Europe's economically-deprived regions. Other funding areas are insufficiently large to raid, given that science is already the third largest item on the budget.

The bottom line is that Europe's governments want to spend more on science. Average national R&D spending is only 1.5 per cent of GNP, half that of the US and Japan, and R&D is recognised as the key to economic progress

The question is whether individual countries want to spend more on European science, rather than, for example, allocating the money the commission demands towards their own science programmes.

The commission's rationale in earlier framework programmes was that their projects gave added value compared to national science funding by awarding money to consortia drawn from several different countries and from small and large firms, industry and academia.

The idea is about "knocking heads together", avoiding duplication of expertise, and achieving the economies of scale and dissemination of knowledge that the US, with its single economy, its good university-industry links, and its common language, already benefits from.

Unfortunately, the commission has been much criticsed for its management skills as well as for the quality of the science that this model has produced.

A report published last year on the current programme, FP6, said that the commission's project evalautors were seen as incompetent at judging a proposal and offered too little feedback to the 85 per cent of proposals they rejected. "One page of feedback for several months of work is not worth it," said one applicant for proposals. Co-ordinators of projects complained of the difficulty of constant liaising with partners in other countries and the bureaucracy and expense of the EU's auditing requirements, ironically put in place because of large cost abuses of earlier programmes.

There were complaints that evaluators made awards based on political correctness - to projects that included EU countries with little science expertise - rather than good science proposals. A further complaint was that European science lacked direction from a central authority with an overview and the ability to form a European strategy with funds to back it, equivalent to US research councils.

The new framework programme has come up with proposals to deal with some of these criticisms, including a streamlines application process and a new European Research Council. But, in the words of one senior official, FP& won't be "a paradigm shift".

Oxford plant scientist Prof Chris Leaver, the chairman of the UK biochemical society, is one of many critics. He said: "If the new European Research Council is run along the same lines as earlier ones, it will be a disaster and no one will sign up for it."

Oncologist Gordon McVie, a veteran of EU funding proposals, said: "The science initiatives are stifled by bureaucracy, and this is compounded by the low level of administrators who are untrained even in the language of science , never mind the ethos."

Faced with more of the same, governments might effectively scupper science commissioner Janez Potcnik's €70bn science bid by capping the total budget later this year. Even if they don't, there is no saying the EU's increased budget will definitely go to science. The EU has no shortage of lobbyists from the transport, development aid and public health sectors, all wanting their slice of the EU cash pie.

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