European research dilemmas

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The European Commission's proposal will be made public only at the end of next November. However, Nature magazine was recently able to anticipate the main news that, according to the “Bruxelles government”, will form part of Horizon 2020, the European financing program for research that, as from 2014 up to 2020, will substitute the FP7, the Seventh Framework Program which expires in 2013.

The first news is the budget request. Which should go from 50,5 billion Euros of the FP7 to 80 billion Euros. This means that on an annual basis it will go from 7,2 to 11,4 billion Euros. A 22% increase. The Commission wanted this increase in order to try and meet the 2020 objective that failed considerably in 2010: to make Europe the leading region in the world of knowledge technology. A 22% increase in expenditure is not a small amount in relative terms. It is still very little in absolute terms. Bruxelles will continue to coordinate a limited amount (more or less 5%) of the European research expenditure. The majority of the investments (roughly 95%) will still be decided at a national level.

The second – and substantial – last news deals with bureaucracy. The bureaucratic procedure to apply for funds must be unified and slimmed down. Anyone who wishes to apply for a European grant must fill in the same forms. And, if possible, few forms. Following the example of those required to participate in the European Research Council "call".

This is great news for the researchers of the Old Continent. It would have been even sweeter music to their ears if the objectives of the various projects – which are distributed in six vast thematic areas – were not decided by bureaucrats who don't know, as Einstein would say, “where the shoe of science and technological innovation hurts ”, but by the scientific community itself, which knows how to distribute the increased resources. But to defeat the power of bureaucracy, even in Europe, is not a simple affair. Of course, Horizon 2020 will go by without succeeding in this task.

However, the most serious problem does not come from the project, but from the forum that will have to approve it. And this is not a small problem. There are 14 states, practically all the new arrivals in the EU, that are against the basic philosophy for research funding in Europe: whereby funds are given to the best projects. The fact is that the best projects are carried out in the best scientific institutions. Which, in turn, are located in the richest countries: Germany, Great Britain, France and the Scandinavian countries.

The newly arrived EU countries know that they are less equipped scientifically. But they also know they are poorer. And, they believe, a system that rewards the best European researchers is a sort of a 'Robin Hood' situation, only the exact opposite: take from the poor to give to the rich. This is unacceptable as far as we're concerned and we will fight against this process.

Scientists don't like this approach. They believe that the only research evaluation criteria should simply be based on merit. Nothing else. And Europe cannot avoid this principle which is widely accepted worldwide. Otherwise there will be a loss of scientific competitiveness.

It won't be simple to find a solution between such different speakers. The only possible solution is for each single state to invest their own resources in order to diminish the gaps and try to reach excellence. But amongst the countries that have the will and the lucidity to choose this political option are (needless to say) the ones that are already at the top.

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