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EFC Chief Executive talks of a new start for Europe's research foundations

The recent Brussels conference brought together research foundations from around Europe, as well as European Commission officials, and could mark a new beginning for research foundations' involvement in EU research. The European Foundation Centre (EFC) hopes so, and is optimis...

The recent Brussels conference brought together research foundations from around Europe, as well as European Commission officials, and could mark a new beginning for research foundations' involvement in EU research. The European Foundation Centre (EFC) hopes so, and is optimistic following the event. One outcome was that the EFC is now, 'able to have more meaningful conversations with the EU,' according to Gerry Salole, the EFC's Chief Executive. The EFC keeps members informed on EU legislation, supports capacity-building and encourages collaboration. Why is the European Commission interested in research foundations? 'Foundations can take risks. They are not beholden in any way. They can fund unpopular things and are more focused and long term,' Mr Salole told CORDIS News. 'Research is a more neutral area to put resources into than civil society organisations or NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. It's much easier for them to fund universities or museums.' They can also be quite small and therefore flexible, and have a real potential to free-up resources, he added. Mr Salole identified two major outcomes from the event: the way in which it highlighted the variety of institutions working on higher education, from those funding a particular university to those funding research in a particular area; and 'Having the EU beginning to grapple with the difficulties and complexities of foundations.' Until now, 'There has been a tendency to treat foundations and associations as the same,' says Mr Salole. He hopes that this will now change. Research foundations have not traditionally been well-represented in the EU's research framework programmes. Mr Salole believes that this came out at the conference, and he hopes that EU actors will now look to other ways in which foundations can participate in collaborative European research. 'Foundations have independent resources and don't necessarily need money to collaborate across borders,' explained Emmanuelle Faure, Director of European Affairs at the EFC. What foundations are interested in are partnerships of value, she added. Many would also welcome increased participation of a different type, for example representation on boards of experts. Both Mr Salole and Ms Faure also emphasised that EU research would also benefit foundations if there were more research projects on foundations. Another positive outcome of the Brussels conference was the evident support for the creation of a European research forum, as proposed by the expert Aho group in their recent report, and supported by EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik. The EFC also supports this initiative, which would provide 'a permanent mechanism at the European level to share experience, review best practices, and promote synergies and cooperation'. 'No foundation anywhere in the world thinks it can do everything alone,' said Mr Salole, explaining the willingness among foundations to work together in such a forum. While some foundations are very large ¿ almost research institutes in their own right ¿ others are significantly smaller and may find participating in a forum a struggle due to a lack of capacity. Mr Salole is however confident that the forum can work: 'It is a huge learning field, but the enthusiasm is there, and the capacity at national level is there.' He adds that there is a huge role for the EU in coordinating Europe's foundations within the forum, 'But there has to be openness in learning how to do this.' Other proposals to come out of the recent report covered a European statute for research foundations, addressing transparency issues, and cross-border collaboration. All of these proposals need to be addressed by different stakeholders, and progress should be assessed in a review in three years from now, according to the EFC. One of the problems with targeting research foundations is that there are no statistics on how many such organisations exist. The EFC is in the process of building up a clearer picture of Europe's foundations ¿ no simple task ¿ and a great deal of mapping is still needed for the research field. While some have claimed that Europe has very few foundations in comparison with the US, Mr Salole dismisses this assertion as a myth. 'There is so much more funding that goes into universities ¿ we just need to capture it,' he says, adding that fellowships have a long tradition in Europe. Some countries are admittedly more advanced than others in terms of research foundations, but the UK, the Scandinavian countries and Germany are all quite active, and interest is increasing in southern Europe, says Mr Salole. Asked why he believes interest is increasing, Mr Salole referred to 'Perceived citizens' needs, educational needs, problems in funding certain research, and trying to retain researchers in Europe.' Greater affluence has also fed the rise of foundations, he believes. The development of certain scientific fields, including bio-ethics and genetic modification have also given rise to a number of new foundations, explains Ms Faure. Ms Faure also suggests that governments have influenced the growth of foundations. As Europe as a whole and individual countries struggle to compete with emerging economies, particularly in Asia, many have turned to research, realising the potential that it offers. In recent years, governments have looked for partners for research funding, and some countries have introduced specific schemes, which see, for example, governments matching the funding of foundations. Ms Faure emphasises, however, that foundations can only complement what public authorities provide, and they cannot act as a substitute for public funding: 'Foundations can do a lot, but when you look at the weight of what needs doing, foundations can't take over.' The rise in new foundations could also be explained by the achievements of a few very successful foundations. Mr Salole gives the example of the Science Foundation Ireland: 'With very clever leveraging of public funding, some very interesting things have happened,' he says. 'Significant changes took place over a ten-year period, offering a very good example of government and foundations working together.' It seems there are interesting times ahead for Europe's research foundations, and the EFC team is very optimistic, thanks to the enthusiasm from all players. 'We feel we're being asked to do something,' said Mr Salole.

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