A pan-European approach is required, Bertil Andersson is absolutely clear, to fund truly excellent, curiosity-driven research in Europe. Andersson is a professor of biochemistry at Stockholm University, rector of Linköping University, and a former chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry. In the new year he will add secretary general of the European Science Foundation (ESF) to the list, subject to formal election by the foundation’s general assembly in November.

The ESF is an association of 76 national funding agencies from 29 countries. Through its activities, networks, and workshops, the ESF is able to offer strategic advice and lobby on behalf of its member organizations. Its funding comes from national research councils and, more recently, the European Commission (EC). Andersson is very definite about his aims. “I want to use the ESF as a platform to promote pan-European basic research.”

In his work for the Nobel Foundation, Andersson has seen excellence in research from across the globe. “The Americans are really dominating the scene,” he says. “In Europe, particularly when it comes to basic research, we do not have a critical mass like they do in the US.” Part of the problem arises from funding research on a national scale, believes Andersson. “Science is international, the economy is international, but the science economy is national,” he says. “Sweden or Holland cannot be brilliant in every area.” He thinks the best science is done when two or three good groups work together. If, for example, protein chemists in Sweden, crystallographers in Germany, and theoreticians in the UK want to collaborate, they cannot get a common grant, explains Andersson.

Research funding is available on a European scale through the EC’s Framework Programmes. However, these are top-down activities that, according to Andersson, largely fund applied research with specific aims. “That’s fine, that should exist, but it’s not promoting innovative, curiosity-driven research,” he says. “In most countries, you have a balance between funding associations for basic research and other agencies for more applied research. But at the European level, you do not have the basic research funding.” This imbalance is not good for Europe, Andersson believes.

The concept of a European Research Council (ERC), which would address these problems, has been gaining interest. In 2002, the ESF formed a working group to examine the issue. Chaired by Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, and including Andersson, the group reported earlier this year. It found a compelling case for an ERC that provided an “expansion of research funding for fundamental research at the European level by complementing strongly the efforts performed at national level”. The European Union (EU) has also set up a working group to take the issue further and the Academia Europaea has recently contributed to the debate, urging it forwards.

The ESF is well-placed to take a leading role in pushing for an ERC. In fact, the Sykes report suggested that one way forward would be to transform the ESF into an ERC. Indeed, Andersson appears to consider the priorities of the ESF to be closely related to the aims of an ERC, and often talks about both at once.

While the ERC may be discussed at the political level, one of Andersson’s ambitions is to bring the subject to the attention of scientists. He admits that some researchers have been skeptical. He shares their concerns in not creating another Framework Programme. As long as the ERC forms a new funding stream, he believes another set of grant applications will not be a problem. “I think if there is new money to hunt for, I’m sure people will accept that.”

As for funding, he thinks the EC will have to find most of the money for the ERC. “One could imagine some kind of top slicing of the national research councils, but that is a sensitive issue,” he says. “The top slicing cannot be much. On the other hand, if you would top slice by 1–2%, just for the sake of argument, that would be quite a lot, actually.” Andersson is also concerned about the criticism that the ERC would only benefit Britain, Germany, France, and the Nordic countries. He is aware it is important to get researchers involved from southern and eastern Europe. “One has to find a smart way to support those countries,” he concedes. He suggests, as an example, that institutions in these countries might be compensated for training doctoral students that move on to positions in more high profile institutions.

Finally, Andersson asserts that the ERC must be independent from the EC, even if it provides the bulk of the budget. “The political and bureaucratic level in Europe has to trust European scientists that they will do innovative and creative research,” he explains. “The European politician will not be able to compete with the American scientist. If you fund too much in a top-down approach, this is what is going to happen.”

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)01063-0