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ELI in revista Nature

Great expectations

Date published: (16 December 2010)
To win a national bid to host a new European research facility is, for academics, akin to being chosen to hold the Olympic Games. The warm glow of prestige is matched by the flow of hard cash to regenerate land and communities, while the rush of the best scientific minds to the new equipment can give a major boost to national research performance.

So the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania are rightly proud to have beaten France and the United Kingdom to jointly host the euro800-million (US$1-billion) Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), a consortium of three independent laser facilities to deliver images at the atomic level.

The project is part of a roadmap for European research infrastructure — a wish list of research facilities drawn up by the best scientific minds across the European Union (EU) — and the first to be built in newer, and often less-well-off, member states.

The ELI is on track to begin construction early next year, but the real test starts now. To build it, the host countries will use EU structural funds — a multi–billion-euro pot established to help narrow the economic and social disparities between member states. Earlier this year, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said she hoped to divert euro86 billion of EU structural funds to building Europe’s “knowledge economy”, including research infrastructure. In the past, it has been difficult to track how countries have spent such structural funds, and this lack of transparency has led to a sense of mistrust. As a result, policy wonks in established member states are questioning the merits of using structural funds to support research in Europe, such as on the ELI.

Poland is a major beneficiary of structural funding for research infrastructure, and has been allocated euro1 billion over the period 2007–2013. Critics of the approach were handed ammunition earlier this year, when Poland invited a panel of international scientists to assess the research infrastructure it wants to build in the future, partly using structural funds. The country should be applauded for its scientifically responsible approach. But some of the experts on the panel have some concerns about the scientific quality of the country’s proposals.

Some projects look more like plans to create networks between national universities, they say, or attempts to build and strengthen national industries, rather than to develop cutting-edge research infrastructures. One project aims to build a knowledge alliance between several universities to help develop foundry and metallurgy industries, but contains no ideas for what research would be conducted in this area. Instead, it focuses on how the institutions can be linked up easily, sited as they are along major highways.

Out of a total of 60 points that each proposal could be awarded, the highest mark was 45.3; the majority of projects came in at just over half marks. As one scientist on the assessment panel (from a research-intensive member state) commented, only projects awarded the equivalent of 54 points or more would be considered for funding in their home nation. There are also widespread concerns in Europe that the new member states lack the experience to manage large infrastructure projects, including handling budgets, procurement and legal aspects. Insiders at the ELI say that this lack of experience is beginning to show, in preparing accounts for example.

The European Research Advisory Board, an independent advisory committee to the European Commission, echoes these fears in a report published in October. The board is concerned that the power given to member states, to decide which projects to fund with structural funds, directs investment towards building national capacity, rather than cutting-edge research.

The board recommends that some of the structural funds be held back in a central pot, to be allocated to projects judged to be of a high standard by experts, and which would serve pan-European needs. Although this approach may be better for research as a whole, it doesn’t address the difficulties faced in the new member states.

These difficulties are not confined to the newer member states, as those countries involved in building ITER, the fusion test reactor struggling to life near Cadarache, France, have learnt the hard way. Legal and managerial expertise that is crucial to make such projects work must be actively sought and shared. For example, the European Investment Bank’s initiative to help new member states prepare financial proposals for major projects could be extended to see projects through to later stages. And a portion of structural funds earmarked for research infrastructure could be set aside to train scientists as managers.