The European Research Council head urges basic research for economic growth – and charts a course for expansion
European Research Council set for growth, says president
After completing its start-up phase, Europe's leading agency for fundamental research is now ready to ramp up the pace of its grants – and the economic crisis makes such investments more timely than ever, according to the agency's head.
“It's precisely at times of financial crisis that we need a counter-cyclical investment” in research and development, said Fotis C. Kafatos, the president of the European Research Council and chairman of its Scientific Council. “You must make sure that the complex of our educational and research institutions is not starved in a period of economic crisis. Saving rather than investing now is a dangerous short-termist attitude. It is now that we must invest with conviction in the knowledge triangle: education, research, innovation.”
Fotis Kafatos, president of the European Research Council, photographed at Imperial College London, where he is Professor of Immunogenomics.
The ERC began operations in 2007, as a new initiative to fund basic research through peer-reviewed competitions for grants, with excellence as the sole criterion for success. Since then, it has selected about 575 researchers across Europe to get a total of €850 million – out of more than 11,000 applicants. Now the annual spending pace is set to jump, to €775 million this year, €1.1 billion next year, €1.3 billion in 2011, €1.6 billion in 2012 and €1.7 billion in 2013. And if Kafatos has his way, the growth won't stop there.
“By 2013 we are at €1.7 billion – and by that year we should have a second steep increase so that we would reach something comparable to the NIH budget during the following seven years,” he said. The US National Institutes of Health is due to spend $30.3 billion in the fiscal year beginning 1 October. The US National Science Foundation, which like the ERC funds research across a broad number of fields, will spend $7 billion in the coming fiscal year.
Whether the ERC actually gets a further budget rise from 2014, of course, will depend on its political paymasters at that time in the European Council, Commission and Parliament. On 24 February the EC announced the formation of a committee of leading experts in science policy, from both Europe and overseas, to start reviewing the work of the ERC to date.
Attracting non-EU researchers with ERC grants is intended to help strengthen Europe's science base – and reverse the brain drain that Europe has experienced for many decades.
Kafatos, interviewed in his office at Imperial College London where he is also a professor, said the next steps include pitching for more researchers outside the EU to apply for ERC grants. This is encouraged so long as the applicant is proposing to do the research at an EU university or other European institution. First priority, he said, is involving US scientists – but Japan, China and India are also on the agenda. Attracting non-EU researchers with ERC grants is intended to help strengthen Europe's science base – and reverse the brain drain that Europe has experienced for many decades.
Industrial researchers are also welcome, he said. “We are open to people based in industry applying for grants. No one has so far, probably because it is not widely enough known as yet (that industrial researchers can apply). We intend to make it clear that we can give grants to innovative people in industry, provided the enterprise allows the principal investigators to follow their nose in research. Basic research in industry is a component of industrial research, that falls within the ERC's remit; we would be very happy to support.”
A further funding boost, from 2014, is needed to consolidate the attractiveness of ERC grants and strengthen European research, Kafatos argues. “You need Europe to clearly succeed in this major undertaking. Any stalling would be misguided. In a moment of crisis you want to put resources as much as possible to those who will have a major impact. Excellence is at the core of the ERC.”
He added: “If you think excellence is costly, try mediocrity.”