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European research chief warns that austerity is hitting science excellence

Posted on behalf of Leigh Phillips.

The head of the European Research Council (ERC) has warned that national austerity programmes threaten research excellence in Spain and Ireland, and expressed fears that both young and experienced researchers will abandon the countries as a result of public spending cuts.

“Ireland was doing well in funding up until now, but I am worried this will disappear. Spain is the same. Spain had reached a good level, but now, with the cuts to funding, this will drop,” said ERC president Helga Nowotny at a press conference at the 2012 Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin. Nowotny was at ESOF to announce new initiatives on open access, and a partnership with the US National Science Foundation.

The ERC was established in 2007 as the first pan-European funding organization for frontier research, with peer-reviewed excellence the sole criterion for success.

Nowotny was responding to the fears voiced by high-profile Irish grantee and immunologist Luke O’Neill, who is also chair of the Immunity and Infection panel of the ERC. Unprompted, he told reporters that austerity is hitting Irish research hard: “Ireland is in real danger of slipping back. I worry about it a lot.”

“If we’re not accommodating people in our funding, Irish scientists will go to the UK to get ERC grants,” he said, adding that the problem is both at the level of senior researchers and young people starting out their careers, who will leave “if they can’t get access to basic research funding”.

Nowotny also lamented cuts to Italian science. Although Italian researchers played a prominent part in the discovery announced last week of the Higgs boson, it has emerged that the budget of Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics will be reduced by almost 3.8% this year and by 10% a year for the next two years.

Italy’s National Research Council is also bearing cuts of 1.2% this year and 3.3% in 2013. The ERC chief said that she is confident the science minister is more committed to sustaining research funding than Italy’s previous government, under former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, “but the minister also needs a budget”. Nowotny explained that one of the major indicators of whether a country’s researchers are able to access ERC grants is the scale of domestic funding: “There has to be complementary funding. It’s a stepping stone in particular for younger people,” she said.

“It’s very difficult unless you’ve had strong national support,” agreed O’Neill, who cheered the success of the European programme and its effect on building a European research community.

“Some countries are unhappy with a lack of return, a juste retour,” said Nowotny, in a reference to dissatisfaction in eastern Europe at how few of their researchers have managed to win ERC grants. A letter submitted by 11 eastern states to the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers in June demanded a dedicated article in legislation establishing the new seven-year science-funding programme, Horizon 2020, that would “ensure equal access” and “fair conditions for newcomers”, and that would put an end to the “closed clubs”, by which they mean the dominance of western EU states in winning the bulk of funding.

She said that the ERC will “fight” to keep grants for research excellence independent of efforts to tie funding to other criteria than excellence, “otherwise the whole point of it becomes attenuated.”

“The ERC is very much aware of the situation in the new member states. Our scientific council goes twice a year to these places, meeting with the ministers, the scientific community, funding agencies, to encourage them to develop their structures.”

She singled out Poland for praise, “with its strong history in maths and physics,” and its development of a parallel domestic infrastructure for funding excellence in research.

“As a result of our visit, they copied the ERC strategy with their national funding agency. This is the way to go,” she said. “One of the problems is the historical legacy of only allowing the academies and not the universities to engage in research. They were under the thumb of the party,” she said. “Some countries have reformed, but others have still to do this.”

“In some countries, there is still the Big Boss who remains the Big Boss, who decides who is hired and fired, who puts his name on whatever paper without contributing anything.”

“There needs to be changes to laws, transform assessment mechanisms, reform the administrations.”

“The problem is not talent. The talent is everywhere,” she added, saying that five of their starting grantees are Romanian. “But you have to ask why they are not doing their research in Romania.”

On Friday, the ERC also announced a new initiative under which early-career National Science Foundation researchers in the United States would be able to come to Europe to join the teams of ERC grantees for 6–12 months.

At the same press conference, the ERC announced that it will participate in the UK PubMed Central open-access repository service, which aims to make the results of life-sciences research freely available. The move makes the ERC the third European funder to join, after Telethon Italy and the Austrian Research Fund. The organizations have agreed to re-brand the service ‘Europe PubMed Central’ from November this year.


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