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National funders of research in European Union member states should be more involved in deciding the priorities of the European framework programme, the EU's €50bn (£34bn; $67bn) scheme for promoting cross border research in the EU, Colin Blakemore, head of the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), told MPs last week. But the UK should also be encouraging collaboration with researchers outside the EU, he said.
Giving evidence to the parliamentary science select committee's inquiry into the international policies and activities of the UK's research councils, Professor Blakemore said that he was “bemused” by the process of identifying the 10 thematic priority areas, which restrict funding to specified areas of EU interest.
The framework programme (FP) is the principal mechanism of funding scientific collaboration in the EU, and the UK is disproportionately successful at winning grants through the scheme, despite an application procedure that has been criticised as being overly bureaucratic. Professor Blakemore said that the most recent incarnation of the programme, FP7, which established the European Research Council (ERC), aims to answer many of the criticisms levelled at the system.
He called the ERC “the most significant development” in FP7, because it is a funding mechanism that is “uncluttered by the baggage of national programmes.” The main challenges facing the ERC are demand management—which Professor Blakemore said is not being very well met at the moment, with around 9000 applications just for a starting grant—and maintaining independence. “Although [the ERC] has been granted a very significant and unusual degree of independence, it is, in the end, an executive agency of the [European] Commission, and legal advice implies that at any point the ERC could be taken back into direct control of the commission,” Professor Blakemore warned. “And that is something to be nervous about.”
However, he added, although the framework programme is an important funder in the EU, its grants amount to only 6% of publicly funded research and development in Europe. The other 94% of research is funded through national agencies such as the MRC, he said. “It [the framework programme] remains the principal mechanism of collaboration in the EU and is therefore extremely important. But I think people should be looking for other mechanisms of collaboration,” he said.
To encourage collaboration outside the framework programme, most of the UK's research councils, including the MRC, accept joint applications from groups of researchers who are based in two different countries to jointly apply for funds, said Professor Blakemore. A third of publications resulting from MRC funded grants involved international collaboration, and a third of grants go to collaborations with the United States, he added.
One example of this kind of cooperation is the establishment of foreign offices—planned for Washington, Beijing, and perhaps Delhi—that are jointly funded by members of Research Councils UK to promote collaboration. The offices are intended to inform local scientists of opportunities and to facilitate working relationships. In the United States, said Professor Blakemore, the UK is already the preferred collaboration partner. But at the Chinese office, he said, “The principal issue will be a matter of catch-up. Germany and France have already been doing it—Germany has an international centre that is already well recognised by Chinese scientists.
“I think the UK has recognised its need to move with more agility in collaborating with China and India and strengthening further links with the US.”