EUROPE: ERC plea to double budget

The European Research Council has made a public appeal for its annual budget to be doubled to around EUR4 billion (US$5.75 billion) from 2013.

Addressing the European Parliament's committee on industry, research and energy at a 25 May hearing in Brussels, ERC president Professor Helga Nowotny cited "undiminished demand" from researchers for grants from the council, which funds cutting-edge basic research.

This follows her comments last month in an ERC position paper where she said the admittedly "significant increases" to the ERC's annual budgets over the course of the European Union's current Seventh Framework Programme for Research had been matched or even exceeded by increases in applications.

This, she said, had led to low application success rates that are expected to drop even further, while many excellent proposals go unfunded.

The position paper noted that the ERC's annual budget is less than half of that of its US counterpart, the US National Science Foundation, despite the ERC covering a wider area of research.

After the meeting, Nowotny said: "Without investing in frontier research, you will not have radical innovation - real breakthroughs that are creating the scientific and technological basis for innovations in the future."

She hoped EU research spending after 2013, when the new eighth framework programme will be launched, would bring research and innovation together.

Attracting large numbers of researchers from outside Europe remains one of the biggest challenges for the ERC. But it hopes its commitment to long-term funding will attract overseas talent into the programme.

Hannah Monyer, an ERC-funded researcher, told the EU's Europe by Satellite information service that ERC grants often lasted five years - noting that even the most prestigious national grants given in Germany and other European countries normally lasted only two to three years:

"Of course, you must have credits. You must have shown that you're good at what you are doing; you can then expand on something that is risky but has lots of potential," Monyer said. "It is a very ambitious project that requires the qualification of additional people."

At the parliamentary hearing, committee Chair and European Parliament member Herbert Reul and framework programme chief (and one-time ERC director) Jack Metthey, backed the stance.

"Europe will only be taken seriously if we increase the budget for research," Reul said during the hearing. "The prerequisite for economic growth, welfare and jobs is that we are good tomorrow and the day after tomorrow."

Meanwhile, despite low performance in some countries, Metthey described the ERC as "a full success of FP7" - a sentiment echoed by representatives from various political groups.

Portuguese Green MEP Marisa Matias said there was a need to ensure there were successful candidates from under-represented member states or regions: "There's a real crucial need here to deliver more cohesion and create more consistency for this project which we all acknowledge to have been successful," Matias said.

In response, Nowotny said the problem was linked to national research spending. Where a country spent less, its researchers moved to a country that spent more: "So something has to be done and we are telling this also to everyone that comes to us and raises this issue."

She stressed that raising the number of successful candidates would remain a priority for the ERC, even if selection criterion continued to be based on excellence: "We insist that for frontier research no other criteria can or should exist. This principle is key to pursuing the ERC's mission of funding the best individual all fields of research."