With the mid-term review of Framework 7 now out of the way, attention will quickly turn to its successor. The European Commission will present its first communication on Framework 8 in early 2011, and an impact assessment next summer.

Already the debate has broadly divided into two camps, those who favour support for near-market research and innovation, and those who want European funding to concentrate on scientific excellence.

On the side of innovation are, unsurprisingly, industry groups as well as some of the big old member states and, it seems, the research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. She leads the group of commissioners who drew up the research and innovation strategy to be presented to heads of state at the European Council in September. She has already indicated that the innovation agenda is likely to dominate the discussions over Framework 8.

The push for more funding for excellent research comes mainly from academics and some of the smaller and newer EU member states that lack large domestic research funding programmes of their own. The main channel for this type of funding in Framework 7 is the European Research Council.

Since the Framework Programme began in 1985, it has always been dominated by near-market, applied research programmes aimed at reversing Europe's perceived lack of competitiveness. A precondition for funding for many Framework projects was the involvement of a number of both industrial and academic partners, located in several different member states. This began to change when Framework 7 was being negotiated around the middle of this decade, with the advent of the European Research Council. For the first time, EU research funding was to be used to support single-investigator research projects, with the criteria for funding based solely on scientific excellence.

With around 7 billion euros out of Framework 7's 56-billion-euro budget for 2007-13, the ERC has been a major success, and is wildly popular with Europe's academics. Its supporters now want its budget to be doubled in Framework 8.

But the ERC was created in a time of plenty, when booming economies had EU politicians feeling generous. As Europe slowly emerges from the global recession, blue-skies research now looks like a luxury that we could perhaps do without. Now, the politicians are looking for ways to boost their economies, and want a quick return on any investment—something the ERC cannot offer.

This short-term focus is unfortunate, not just for those who want to see the ERC given more money, but for the health of European research in general. The best way to build a successful European Research Area is to use more of the Framework Programme to support excellent research, strengthen Europe's universities and build more scientific facilities. The ERC is one of the best ways to do this. Its grants are portable, and, despite their relative newness, they are highly respected. And, perhaps most significantly for academics, the council's bureaucracy and paperwork are less onerous than the rest of the Framework Programme. Given time, the ERC will help build the capacity of Europe's universities and make Europe more innovative.

But the EU's leaders are dealing with much shorter time horizons than the ERC can offer. They want the Framework Programme to help come up with solutions to Europe's pressing problems. Early indications are that Framework 8 will be heavily influenced by the “grand challenges” set out in the Lund Declaration of July 2009—which include topics such as climate change, nanomaterials, health and ageing.

The problem with these “grand challenges” is that by the time negotiations on Framework 8 finish sometime in 2013, they will likely have multiplied and mutated into something more or less indistinguishable from the 10 themes of Framework 7's Cooperation programme. And many academics are sceptical of the ability of directed research programmes to solve massive societal problems.

Of course, before the pie can be divided between directed and blue-skies research, the overall budget must be agreed. Geoghegan-Quinn has indicated that she will support a budget of between 50 and 100 billion euros over the seven years of Framework 8, but the financial situation in Europe may keep the total towards the low end of that scale.

There is hope, however, that research funding could be a big winner in the next EU budget. Several big member states, including France and Germany, have poured huge amounts of money into research in the hopes that it will help drag them out of recession. If they can convince their colleagues that the same prescription can help cure the rest of Europe's ailing economies, there should be enough cash to satisfy both sides of the applied versus blue-skies debate.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70169-3