All systems go for FP7
'It's a great day', EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik told journalists immediately after the European Parliament approved amendments to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) proposal that were drafted together with the Council. Although the new text still requires formal approval by the Competitiveness Council, this is expected to be achieved without problems at its next meeting on 4 and 5 December. This will then enable the Commission to publish the first calls for proposals on 22 December as planned, and officially launch the biggest ever European research programme. FP7 is divided into four specific programmes. The 'Cooperation' programme will support research cooperation in a number of specified thematic areas. 'Ideas' will fund investigator-driven research through a newly created European Research Council (ERC). The 'People' programme will support training and researchers' career development, while 'Capacities' will support the coordination and development of research infrastructure, regional research clusters, international cooperation and closer ties between science and society. The programme's budget of €54.582 billion at current prices is a 'major improvement' according to Mr Potocnik. Of this, €50.521 billion will go to the European Community programme, and €2.751 billion to the Euratom programme (fusion energy research, and fission and radiation protection), which runs from 2007 until 2011. A further €1.31 billion is foreseen for Euratom for 2012 and 2013. The final changes to FP7 correspond to the Parliament's priorities. Amendments submitted by rapporteur and Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek ensure that children's health, respiratory diseases, neglected diseases and fisheries will receive funding; attempt to ease the participation of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); and give increased emphasis to the scientific training role of the Joint Research Centre (JRC). MEPs ensured that renewable energy research will be a priority by insisting that the 'major part' of the energy budget will go to renewables and end-use efficiency, with clean coal technologies and capture and storage receiving what is left. 'This sentence can only mean one thing: that the two sets of technologies will receive over half of the budget for non-nuclear research, meaning at least €1,175 million over the seven years of FP7,' said Didier Mayer, President of the European Renewable Energy Research Centres (EUREC). This figure represents an increase in real terms of around 40% compared to the average amount spent on these technologies under FP6, EUREC has calculated. The amendments also adjust the budget slightly, with three of the four FP7 pillars (Cooperation, Ideas and People) increasing their funding envelopes slightly, and the fourth, Capacities, seeing a decrease. There is also a change to the budget of the planned Risk Sharing Finance Facility (RSFF). The feature is intended to facilitate access to European Investment Bank (EIB) finance, allowing the funding of riskier research projects and leveraging more private funding in the process. On the ERC, MEPs defended their request to have a mid-term review - something that the Commission was originally against - and also included an amendment to make sure that, should the structure of the Council need to be modified, it will be done in conjunction with the Parliament through the co-decision procedure. A further change increases slightly the money available for the ERC's administrative costs, from the 3% on which MEPs had previously insisted, to 5%. Jerzy Buzek praised the quality of the original Commission proposal, saying that the parliament had changed a few things, but not the ideal behind the programme or its structure. Of 2,000 amendments from MEPs, 700 had been put to the vote, and those adopted improve the programme, he said. Both Mr Buzek and Mr Potocnik praised the inter-institutional collaboration that made agreement possible. Mr Buzek also thanked his fellow parliamentarians for putting aside political preferences in the name of getting FP7 up and running. 'I hope that this will be a principal for future discussions in the Parliament,' he said. One may be inclined to think that with the launch of FP7 now imminent, those that designed it will be looking forward to a well earned break. Messrs Potocnik and Buzek were far from giving this impression on 30 November. According to Mr Buzek, 'We haven't finished yet. The work starts today.' The next step is to implement the programme, he said. And then, 'We have to convince national governments, policy-makers, researchers, society that this is a good programme. We have to breathe new life into European research.' For Janez Potocnik, FP7 has undoubtedly been his biggest project since his appointment as Science and Research Commissioner in 2004. The programme may now be all but implemented, but that does not mean that his work is done. 'This is a non-stop, constant journey,' he said. The Commissioner's focus is now longer term. He told journalists on 30 November to look out for a new debate on the European Research Area (ERA) in 2007. Then in 2009 there will be a debate on the financial perspectives of the European Union. 'This will be connected with the debate on the future of Europe. We have to be prepared,' he said, prepared to illustrate to policy-makers exactly how important investment in research is for Europe's competitiveness.