European Commission floats voluntary scheme to end duplication of national research efforts

The European Commission has proposed a controversial scheme that could see member states combine their public research funds to tackle projects of mutual interest, like climate change, food safety and energy challenges.

The new ’Joint Programming’ initiative aims to reduce the duplication of research efforts by scientists in EU member states through shared multinational funding pots that would be open to scientists from all participating countries.

Only 15 per cent of public research funds in Europe are allocated at the European level, through the EU’s own framework programmes or intergovernmental organisations like CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The remaining 85 per cent is tied up in national research projects.

But the plans are proving controversial, with worries in industry and academia that the local interests of individual countries could be lost amid such broad collaboration and that money from taxpayers in one nation could go to scientists or institutions based in others.

Potential problems

’In chemistry, you can imagine that there are some areas where the [European Commission] might have a view regarding what types of science should be followed,’ says William Jones, who heads the University of Cambridge’s chemistry department. ’If research funding is used to address shorter-term political issues, and governments become concerned about issues that might be important in 3-5 years, that might make it more difficult to get support for basic science that doesn’t have that immediate benefit.’

"It would be a problem if the consequence was that the UK lost the influence it had on trying to direct the sort of research it wants" - William Jones

’It would be a problem if the consequence was that the UK lost the influence it had on trying to direct the sort of research it wants,’ Jones adds.

The Commission has yet to clarify how the EU would decide on spending the combined research funds. But it warns that ’Joint Programming requires that member states be prepared to move in the direction of the definition and implementation of common research agendas with multi-annual, commonly decided activities (planning, launching, evaluating) and funding mechanisms.’

Industry stakeholders, like the European Renewable Energy Centres Agency (ERECA), have some concerns. ’Joint programming will involve compromise, a point that the [Commission] avoids spelling out,’ the European Renewable Energy Centres Agency warns. ’All countries will have to change some aspect of the way they run their national programmes to accommodate the needs of the member states with which they are jointly programming’.

However, countries that excel in a particular field may be reluctant to alter the way they fund research to fit in with other member states.

No obligation

For its part, the Commission emphasises that the initiative is voluntary and its rules are flexible. ’We are proposing a new approach or process, but not obliging member states to participate,’ explains Catherine Ray, the Commission’s research spokeswoman. ’We are not proposing to give money from one country to another.’ For example, she notes, one or two countries could decide to work together in a specific area, and the research could take place at many different sites simultaneously. 

The European Competitiveness Council, made up of research ministers from the EU’s member states, will discuss the proposal at the end of September. If the council approves the scheme by the end of 2008, as planned, they will appoint ’high-level’ representatives to identify what specific areas are ripe for this type of collaboration by summer 2009. The first Joint Programming Initiatives are slated to be launched by 2010.

Big science

Meanwhile, the EU has also put forward a separate plan for  a legal framework to facilitate the development of big European research facilities - like synchrotrons, neutron sources and clean rooms for nano-electronics.

The proposal would foster the joint establishment and operation of research facilities of European interest between several EU member states and other countries. 

Under the legislation, European researchers would gain access to expensive and cutting-edge research facilities, plus the time it takes to establish these infrastructures would be reduced. Furthermore, the new legal framework could provide some of the advantages that international organisations enjoy, such as exemption from Value Added Tax (VAT).

"We wonder whether this is really necessary" - Eva-Maria Streier

However, some national research funding bodies are already questioning whether the legislation is needed.

’We wonder whether this is really necessary,’ states Eva-Maria Streier, an official with DFG, Germany’s main research funding agency. ’So far, scientists themselves decide on the basis of proposals about the use of the infrastructure facilities - for instance about observation time - and this has proved useful beyond national considerations,’ she tells Chemistry World.

But according to Commission officials, the type of work being carried out at such facilities would not change as a result of the new legislation. Member states would continue to own their nation’s facilities, and different European countries already jointly own many large research facilities. The legislation will simply make it easier for member states to build critical scientific infrastructure, they say.

Nonetheless, while chemists agree that there is certainly a need for more cutting-edge facilities in Europe, some believe that the proposals could lead to even more researchers applying for time to use them - increasing competition for scarce resources.

The European Council, which comprises the heads of EU member states, is expected to approve the legislation before the end of the year, and it is set to take effect from mid-2009.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA