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Potocnik vows to defend ERC budget

Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik warned negotiators not to reduce funding for the European Research Council (ERC) during budget discussions for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and explained why the Council will fund 'frontier research', as opposed to 'ba...

Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik warned negotiators not to reduce funding for the European Research Council (ERC) during budget discussions for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and explained why the Council will fund 'frontier research', as opposed to 'basic research'. The ERC will begin funding research projects under FP7. The justification for such a body is that, 'countries with leading edge research are the ones that are best positioned to maintain and advance their quality of life and their positions in the world,' according to Mr Potocnik. 'They are best placed to establish leading edge industries and services, and to generate intellectual assets with long term returns,' he added. But the ERC will do more than simply fund research - it will allow researchers to identify new opportunities and directions for research, rather than taking the lead from priorities set by politicians. On the budget, Mr Potocnik said that while the Commission proposes an average of just over 1 billion euro per year for seven years, the ERC's budget is not yet secure. The Commission's proposal would see the ERC's budget increasing gradually over the seven-year FP7, starting with 300 million euro in 2007, rising to 1.7 billion euro by 2013. But, 'Consensus is always easier before budget discussions become serious,' said Mr Potocnik. 'There are always dangers at the very end of a political negotiation, when different interests emerge and negotiating strategies turn towards brinkmanship. This is especially true in the case of a 'non-aligned' activity such as the ERC, which has no sectoral label.' The Commissioner was in combative mood: 'let me tell you one thing - if there is a fight worth fighting, this is the one. The success of the ERC depends heavily on its critical mass, and it is vital that the other institutions [...] maintain their focus on this until the very end of the discussions,' he said. '[T]he ERC should not simply be understood as a funding mechanism for 'basic research' in the traditional sense of the term,' said Mr Potocnik. The Commissioner uses the term 'frontier research' rather than 'basic research', to make a clear distinction for the ERC's role, and to give the ERC a '21st century connotation', as opposed to one 'captive to the dynamics of research in the mid-20th century'. The Commissioner emphasised that the Council will also fund social science and humanities research. Speaking of interactions between previously distinct areas of research - a topic usually referred to in the context of nano-biotechnology - he suggested that the ERC could fund research on religious studies combined with network theories as a means to learn more on the origins of terrorism. Mr Potocnik highlighted a number of areas in which Europe lags behind its competitors, but spoke confidently of the ERC's ability to address current weaknesses. 'The ERC is certainly not a panacea, but from the structural perspective, it represents perhaps the singly most important means of remedying Europe's weakness in high-quality research in new, fast-developing areas,' he said. European scientists are cited infrequently in scientific publications compared to their US counterparts, and while Europe is strong in fields such as chemistry, physics, maths and medicine, it underperforms in emerging fields such as biotechnology and nanoscience. 'What is going on here?' asked the Commissioner. 'Europe as a whole seems to have problems in selecting and supporting new and influential fields of research, managing rapid qualitative growth in these fields and combing this with high quality.' The ERC will help by creating open and direct competition for funding between the very best researchers in Europe, enhancing aspirations and achievements. Projects will be selected from a much larger pool than at national level, and thus raise the overall level of expectation and then achievement, according to a report by economists and science policy specialists. The competitive funding structure will channel funds into the most promising new fields with a degree of flexibility not always possible in other funding schemes. As an internationally-recognised funding body, the ERC will confer status and visibility on European frontier research. Mr Potocnik used his speech, given at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the UK, to thank the UK for pushing the ERC and the importance of research in general during its Presidency of the EU in 2005, and to congratulate the research community on making the ERC a reality. Just three and a half years from the first discussions of the ERC, it has the full support of the Commission, the Member States and the European Parliament. 'The scale of this achievement should not be underestimated. It serves as testimony both to the ability of the European research community to mobilise itself in response to key challenges, and to the effectiveness of the Community machinery in acting quickly and decisively to enhance the support for frontier research across Europe,' said the Commissioner.

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