While most funding agencies in the US have had their budgets cut, the situation in Europe may be about to get a whole lot rosier. The European Commission (EC) is proposing to double its research budget.

The EC's primary tool for supporting research is its Framework Programmes (FPs). The commission has finalized its plans for FP7, which are now subject to approval by the European Union (EU) member states. The duration of the programme will increase to cover the years 2007-2013, enabling long-term commitment to projects. Doubling the annual budget compared with FP6 means the total budget for the seven-year period is €67.8 billion. FP7 will also include the long-hoped-for European Research Council, a new funding stream for basic research that will select projects by excellence alone.

Janez Potocnik, EC Commissioner for Science and Research, was bullish in his view that member states will accept these proposals without watering them down at a briefing on research infrastructures for materials science. This meeting, held at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, served to show that the EC recognizes the need to reinforce support for large-scale facilities, such as synchrotrons and neutron sources. Potocnik also admits that applying for funds from previous FPs has been a complex and time-consuming process for most researchers. He plans to take steps to address this. “An important simplification and rationalization will have to be provided throughout [FP7],” he said.

There is a wider picture too. Potocnik believes these steps are crucial if Europe is to meet not only its research goals, but also its wider aims on jobs, economic growth, the environment, and societal cohesion. “I am convinced that we will only achieve competitiveness and leadership for European industry in global markets if we rapidly put Europe in the lead as an economy and a society of knowledge,” he said.

The need for change is backed up by the latest figures, which show European research funding has been increasing, but only just. According to Eurostat, R&D expenditure in 2002 accounted for 1.93% of GDP in the 25 member states, up 0.11% since 1998. This is a smaller fraction than the financing of R&D in the US (2.76%) and Japan (3.12%), and also someway short of the EU's self-proclaimed goal of 3% of GDP by 2010. However, the main gap in research support comes not in public funding, but in that of industry. Business provides only 55% of funding in the EU, compared with 73.9% in Japan and 64.4% in the US.

Should it be approved, the doubling of funds in FP7, the recognition of the importance of basic research and large facilities, and simplified application procedures will be very welcome to European researchers. But only if European industry takes similar steps, will the gap to the US and Japan really close.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00826-6