Call for excellence to rule Framework programmes

16 Dec 2009 | Viewpoint
Research money should promote excellence not cohesion, says Peter Frankenberg, Minister of Science, Research and the Arts for the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Peter Frankenberg, Minister of Science, Research and the Arts for the German state of Baden-Württemberg

Peter Frankenberg, Minister of Science, Research and the Arts for the German state of Baden-Württemberg, has made a call for the next Framework Programme, the EU’s main instrument for funding research, to be built on tough competition that rewards excellent researchers.

“If you would like to compete with Japan, Singapore, East Asia, you have to strengthen [your research capabilities],” Frankenberg said in an interview with Science|Business. “Research money is not primarily money to make it more equal, but it’s to make it more competitive.”

In Frankenberg’s opinion, all Framework Programme money should be disbursed on the basis of excellence and peer review. This would ensure that research is driven by quality and priorities, he said. Funds need to remain available for excellent research projects. “Right now, very innovative and successful projects have a hard time getting further funding from the Commission,” Frankenberg said, adding that the highest performers need to be rewarded and they need to be encouraged.

Horse trading over the shape of the next Framework Programme is about to get underway, at a time when many aspects of EU research policy are up in the air.

“Probably never before in the history of the Framework Programmes are so many fundamental changes concerning the structure of the EU research policy likely to happen,” said Frankenberg, who represents the 16 German Länder [states] on matters relating to research on the EU’s Competitiveness Council.

The European Research Council should be “a pillar” of the next Framework Programme, according to the minister. The ERC, created in 2007 and part of the current Framework Programme FP7 running from 2007-2013, has emerged as a high-prestige funder of basic research, with stiff competition across Europe for its grants.

“They have to strengthen the European Research Council, and they have to put more money into it. That will strengthen university research all over Europe because [the money] goes into basic research,” Frankenberg said. "The overall research system is a pyramid that needs to have strong foundations of basic research," he added.

Frankenberg agrees with the recent recommendation from the European Research Area Board, which called for half of European research funding to go into frontier research and development. He acknowledged that half of the money is a high proportion, but pointed out that it’s much less than the research budgets of large companies, and that the public purse is the only source of funding for basic research.

Of course all of this does not answer an important question: how can those regions of Europe that are less well endowed in terms of scientific infrastructure ever catch up if all Framework Programme money goes to excellent researchers and research institutes? This could be dealt with by directing more of the structural funds into research and education, Frankenberg believes. “Perhaps [we should] spend more [on] the development of research and development than [on] balancing the agricultural sector.”

Frankenberg has been heavily involved in Germany’s Excellence Initiative, set up with the aim of making Germany a more attractive research location. In total, this programme involved €1.9 billion of funding, 75 per cent from the federal government, 25 per cent  from the Lander from 2006-2012. Baden-Württemberg has done particularly well under the initiative, accounting for four of Germany’s nine so-called elite universities.

Earlier this year, the government decided to fund a second round of the Excellence Initiative, but Frankenberg thinks that will be the last one. The two excellence initiatives are necessary to lift the level of research and identify the best, but it isn’t something that can be continued forever.

“In the long run, a competition as sophisticated and time-consuming as this, can’t be organised over and over again,” the minister said.

“Very tough debates” are now going on in Germany as to what should happen next, Frankenberg said. He emphasised the importance of building a sustainable system so that the large clusters, professorships and laboratory buildings that have all been put in place thanks to the Excellence Initiative don’t suddenly collapse.

To ensure this, Frankenberg considers ongoing funding from the federal government to be key, saying the states alone cannot afford to fund the top universities. Extra funding for excellent research at a faculty level, for example, would open up possibilities for those universities that perhaps only have one good faculty.

The state minister also argues that state and federal finances should not be so strictly separated. For example, the federal government is currently not allowed to fund anything to do with teaching, but in Frankenberg’s opinion, the universities should be free to put federal money into teaching if they want.

The proposed changes could require a change in the German constitution. Funding shake-ups could therefore be on the cards at home, as well as in Brussels, if Frankenberg has his way.

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