It is a consistent grumble that too much funding is focused on applied, industrially oriented research and the strategic priorities of governments. Add to that the reduction in basic research carried out by companies, and it is easy to feel depressed about curiosity-driven research.

There are now signs that the pendulum is swinging back toward basic research studies. Even though the applications of such work may be less clear, the argument is being won that fundamental research excellence and creativity lead to progress and achievement. With increasing competition across the globe, it's something that politicians are desperate to believe.

The best example is the establishment of the European Research Council (ERC), which has just been celebrated in Berlin, Germany. This is the first time that European Union (EU) money will go to support research judged purely on its originality, creativity, and – above all – excellence. Previously, the EU's mission to promote growth, jobs, and integration tended to see funds go to collaborative, applied research alone.

With a budget of $9.8 million over seven years, the ERC is a significant new stream of money. The aim is to stimulate competition and allow partnerships between the best researchers across Europe, resulting in work that compares with the best in the world. The first call for proposals is for promising young researchers (a welcome move in itself). Later calls will be for those at any stage in their career.

In terms of Brussels time, the ERC has been instigated very quickly. This speed reflects the great need for such a body, as well as the pressure for its creation exerted by scientists. It has been a challenge too, because some countries are bound to lose out to research powerhouses like Germany, France, and the UK. Universities will also have to be able to attract and support the high-flying researchers with large ERC grants.

Europe has long looked to the US, and the number of Nobel prizes its scientists continue to enjoy, with envy. But it is also clear that the ERC is a response to the emergence of other states, in particular the rise in the amount and quality of research from India and China. India has just announced that it will increase its science spending by 21% in its 2007–2008 budget, for example. Elsewhere, South Africa has recently more than doubled its science budget and even Sri Lanka, still troubled by rebuilding after the tsunami, aims to increase its spending from 0.2% to 1% of its gross domestic product.

Given that politicians around the world are increasingly buying into science and innovation as a guarantee of future prosperity, or a way out of poverty, let's hope they continue to be happy with the return on their investment.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70031-7