Speaking for Science at a European Level

A fascinating Special Report in Nature this week highlights the position of science at a European level. It notes that the EU has done much to support science, budgeting €50 billion for scientific research under the current 7th Framework Programme (FP), which runs from 2007-2013 and dictates which areas of research will get funding. There is also talk at the moment of creating a new position of Chief Scientific Adviser for Europe, to inform policy on contentious science-related issues.

Nonetheless, there are still concerns that scientists are not speaking with a sufficiently unanimous voice when dealing with the Commission, and thus having less of an impact than they should. When drawing up a new FP, the Commission has to accommodate a wide variety of competing views, including different national and political priorities as well as the wishes of scientists and industry. However, as there is no authoritative body through which scientists can speak with one voice, their input can get somewhat lost.

At present, the annual work programmes of the FP receive input from fourteen permanent science advisory groups, each covering a different research area. However, the remit and relevance of these groups varies hugely, with some genuinely influencing the direction of research and others feeling like they do little more than tick boxes. The main reason for this is that different sections of the Commission are more proactive in seeking advice than others. Particular bureaucratic cultures are also reflected in the fact that successive FPs have been dominated by ‘historical inertia’, with research programmes which have once been added in tending to stay in indefinitely.

One potential answer might be developing however. Last month a pilot forum brought together key EU and scientific and academic bodies, including the European Research Area Board (ERAB), a group of the heads of European research councils (EUROHORCs) and the European University Association amongst others. The forum discussed a vision for the European Research Area and the next FP, and there is strong support for making it a more permanent body. Europe’s many disparate science voices might therefore be able to come together as one single and more powerful voice.

For more information, please see Nature Vol. 460, 6 August 2009.