Research funding is essential for Europe to become a key knowledge-based economy

Europe is unlikely to reach its goal of becoming ’the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world’ by 2010, but there is no harm in trying. Part of this goal, set by European leaders at a summit in Lisbon in 2000, is to ensure innovation is encouraged by spending more on research and development.

In terms of scientific research, the European Commission’s seventh framework programme (FP7) is a step in the right direction. The programme, launched last month, will run for seven, rather than five, years and will have €73bn (£50bn)in funding.

This amounts to €10.4bn/year, more than double the €4.4bn/year available for FP6. But the figure includes €1.7bn/year for the new European Research Council (ERC) and an unspecified sum for topics that were not included in FP6. Still, it is a significant increase on FP6 funding.

For Europe to become a successful knowledge based economy, funding research is not enough. The region needs to be good at innovation as well as invention.

Invention is something at which Europe does excel. The 15 member states (prior to the enlargement) now publish more scientific papers than the US and are not far behind on citations, according to David King, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, writing in Nature last year. It is a little stronger than the US in physical sciences and weaker in life and medical sciences. But it lags behind the US in terms of innovation.

Europe needs the ability to foster research that is focused on eventual application and transfer that knowledge to the market.

Some mechanisms for this do exist. FP7 has been developed with input from a number of technology platforms, including Suschem on sustainable chemistry. These forums bring together the key stakeholders (industry, national and European public authorities, academia, the financial community, consumers and users) to develop a long-term vision addressing a specific challenge, creating a strategy to achieve that vision and steering the implementation.

The involvement of industry in these platforms will help ensure research is focused on innovation as well as invention.

The ERC will also have a role to play. It is being set up to fund basic research under FP7.

There has been much debate about what the ERC should be and how it should function. Key recommendations include that it should be independent with decisions based on scientific excellence and peer review with no regional quotas.

This has been taken on board and the governing council will be independent and authoritative. The 20, or so, members will all have reputations as research leaders and be current or recent researchers.

All aspects of the research community will be represented, including industry. Again, this should enable research to be aimed at subsequent application, even if this is tens of years away.

Other initiatives exist to foster innovation. They now all need to work together with minimum bureaucracy if Europe is going to get anywhere near its goal.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor