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European science urged to get more competitive

Zinkernagel received a Nobel prize in 1996

(Keystone)

Nobel prize-winning scientist Rolf Zinkernagel tells swissinfo what he hopes to achieve as a member of a new European scientific council.

The European Union has charged the European Research Council (ERC) with promoting and supporting scientific projects as it attempts to catch up with the United States.

The ERC comes into operation on January 1, 2007.

Zinkernagel, a professor of experimental pathology at Zurich University, said one of the main aims of the council would be to track down and help finance "the best proposals" for scientific research.

swissinfo: What are the objectives of the new European Research Council?

Rolf Zinkernagel: The idea behind the ERC is twofold. First, it was felt that it was essential to counterbalance the more developmental political science programme of the EU with the open, purely science-driven, competition model of the US, where more than 50 per cent of science happens.

Secondly, the EU felt it was important to create a council that has a sizeable budget and uses scientific criteria as its leading principal in the awarding of scientific grants.

Our main focus is to create a forum to support the best of European science, in addition to national programmes.

swissinfo: What practical measures will you take to implement these goals?

R.Z.: Take the example of where competitive science works well and compare it to the arts. You cannot order an artist to paint a blue period picture – it doesn't work.

You have to find artists who you think belong to the best of Europe and then support them and hope that they do even better with your support.

We should evaluate and support the best possible science in Europe, select the best proposals and help finance them.

swissinfo: How far behind the US does Europe lag in terms of science?

R.Z.: Europe does reasonably well, but in Europe competitive science and researcher-initiated science projects are still largely nationalistic. It is a question of how Europe is going about science as a global business.

The brain drain [of European scientists to the US] is a problem of making competition an attractive aspect of life, and the US does that better then we do here in Europe. Our labour laws are less flexible than in the US. This is bad for science because you need to have flexible employment possibilities.

For science, the attractiveness of the sandpit to play in is the most important aspect. There, Europe has excellent possibilities. The brain drain can only be neutralised if Europe has attractive research units and cultural and living conditions that are more attractive than in US cities.

The major political question is whether the EU should promote science not only at the applied level, but also on the basic level. The best science has not necessarily arisen in the area of applications but out of curiosity – asking important questions. The EU has not had a substantial impact so far in this field.

swissinfo: What size of budget will the ERC need to work efficiently?

R.Z.: My dream would be €30 billion a year, which at the moment is an illusion. Recent discussions have talked about €3 billion a year, but that has already been halved because there are other important issues to be supported.

I think €3 billion would be a very reasonable size to start out with and then see how it develops.

swissinfo: Is there a danger that politicians will interfere with science?

R.Z.: This has been tried in all countries. If the politicians start defining what should be researched it will end up as a disaster.

If politicians subsidise science they should decide on a lump sum and then let the scientists organise competitions. Although scientists do not always make good decisions, they are better educated to make reasonable guesses.

swissinfo: What is Switzerland's contribution to European science?

R.Z.: Switzerland's contribution to science in the past one or two years has been as an equal member to the EU member states. In terms of science, Switzerland is not an outsider. We have a national science organisation that is organised along the lines of free competition.

In the ERC, we as Swiss can make a good contribution in trying to pursue the goal of securing a good budget for the best of science under the control of scientists.

swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen in Zurich

Key facts

The European Research Council will come into operation on January 1, 2007, with the goal of promoting and supporting science in the EU.
Rolf Zinkernagel has been appointed to the 22-strong scientific council which will run the ERC.
Professor Zinkernagel was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Professor Peter Doherty "for their discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence".

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