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Weak research countries need ‘godfathers’

Buddy scheme would build excellence, says Itre chairman

A ‘buddy scheme’ to help countries with weaker research performances access EU excellence funding has been proposed by the European Parliament.

The scheme would offer money to consortia of researchers from one research-leader state and one weaker member state, who would apply together as a team. Any resulting research laboratory or institution would have to be built in the weaker country, in the hope that its creation would provide a boost to local research excellence. The funding would be provided for projects in specific research areas, to help build centres-of-excellence.

The Parliament hasn’t specified how much money would be spent or given other details of how the scheme would work, and hasn’t yet defined which countries would qualify as “weaker” partners. However, a source within the Parliament says that the scheme will be primarily aimed at assisting countries in eastern Europe.

The idea behind the buddy scheme is to make the Framework Programme more accessible to weaker countries, while maintaining the principle of funding proposals on the basis of their excellence. Herbert Reul, the German Christian Democrat MEP and chairman of the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy committee (Itre), who had the original idea, says the strong countries could be the “godfathers of excellence” who provide the link through which money flows to the weaker states.

“The principle of research funding is excellence, meaning we want to fund the best research, and not use the money like a watering can to grow weak countries,” he told Research Europe. “However, we also know that the spread of research funding in Europe is not equal. So we have to find a solution that is not a watering can, but still triggers research in member states that are less well represented in the Framework Programme.”

The European Commission already has numerous mechanisms in place in Framework 7 to assist the weaker research nations, including those in eastern Europe. In the next two years, for example, Framework 7 will spend €140 million on calls for economically weaker regions under its Capacities programme, a spokesman for the research directorate said. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the research commissioner, has said in the past that she is “determined to spread excellence to parts of the union where it does not currently exist”.

Reul says he envisions there would be “a lot of money” per project to make sure the stronger partners are willing to participate. He also says he would like to run at least three or four separate competitions in different disciplines of research.

The proposal has received a cautious welcome from research administrators. Witold Gnauck, the chairman of the German-Polish Science Foundation, which funds social science collaborations, says there are deeper issues at stake than just getting excellent research centres established in disadvantaged regions.

“In our case, the German research partner is usually the stronger in terms of administration and resources. This has a strong effect on the quality of funding applications and the levels of cooperation,” he explains. “Western European countries win more money because they have the best proposals and national backing. So any initiative like this needs to improve research competencies—especially in research management.”

The buddy scheme proposal was released on 7 October as part of the Parliament’s response to the Commission’s proposal for the next Framework Programme, Horizon 2020, which will run from 2014 to 2020. The response contains the Parliament’s ideas on where Horizon 2020 should go, and how it should be structured.

The Commission is expected to publish a concrete proposal for Horizon 2020 at the end of November, which, Reul says, ought to take into account Parliament’s demands. “We make the decisions, and if we don’t like what they do, we will say no,” he says.