At first glance, the concept is simple: to establish a new entity in Europe that will focus on basic research. There is a large consensus of opinion that European science needs such attention and that Europe needs to deliver a higher quality of basic research than is achieved at present. But even this simple concept of improving the quality of research has given rise to much discussion. Do we mean basic research in this context or investigator‐driven research? Is non‐basic research excluded? I think the clear answer is that many forms of research can be accommodated by the ERC, but we should not shy away from saying that basic research—research that is motivated by the search for greater understanding and knowledge—should receive special attention.
The next issue of debate arises with the question “Why Europe and not individual nations?”. We are still in the early stages of working together in Europe, and there are differing interpretations of how we should do so. The federalists believe that individual nations form the core of any European operation, whereas others increasingly think of Europe as a single entity. The unsolved question of where the ‘centre of gravity’ should lie has led to further disagreement and, more importantly, to a lack of action. But behind this national versus European debate, there are also practical elements. Some larger nations, with a strong research base, have a lingering distrust of selection processes when they are centralized in ‘Europe’. The European Framework Programmes are often cited in this context. Indeed, if the goal is to support high‐quality basic research then scientific criteria alone should rule the selection processes of an ERC, and this must be a core value that is not subject to discussion.
The timetable is almost fixed. By 2006, both the overall EU budget and the next Framework Programme will need to be decided. The current EC Commissioner for research, who supports the idea of an ERC, will end his term in 2004, at a time when many of these discussions will be at a crucial phase. The target, therefore, has to be next year, which also ties in with the report that is due from a group of experts established by the Danish presidency of the EU. Apart from this deadline, there is another reason: if we have not reached a decision by the end of 2004, then battle fatigue will set in and the proponents will be overcome by the defenders of the status quo. And that would be a poor outcome for Europe, I believe.
- Copyright © 2003 European Molecular Biology Organization