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RDT info logoMagazine on European research Special issue - February 2007   

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Title  “EIROforum has become a major player in European science”

He has been the Director General of the ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility) since 2001, covering essentially the period during which the EIROforum collaboration has matured. Today, Bill Stirling talks about his experience as chairman of this group, its past and its directions for the future.

Bill Stirling (left) with the European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik
Bill Stirling (left) with the European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik
What is the value of EIROforum today?
EIROforum is a very positive collaboration where seven institutes share their experience of science at the highest level. One of our aims is to develop the scientific capabilities of Europe in the complicated environment of national science, science funded by the European Union, intergovernmental science like ours, and world science.

We try to create sufficiently long-term strategies to be in a position to answer the really important scientific questions of the future, to motivate our staff, to find the necessary funding and to balance the international programmes of our institutes with the national needs of our Member Countries. For many of these issues our relationship with the European Commission is of growing importance to us.

Personally, I am always struck by the fact that the questions I consider important in the context of the use of synchrotron radiation across Europe are very similar, in many ways, to the issues other EIROforum organisations face in the development of particle physics, or space science, for example.

The big European infrastructures have been developed outside the European Union and its research policy. However, collaboration with the European Commission is intensifying over the years. Will this tendency continue and expand?
At the moment, organisations such as the ESRF are set up to satisfy the scientific needs primarily, but not only, of their Member States. However, I can see the stronger implication of the European Commission through the different schemes in FP7, the Marie Curie Fellowships and so on. It is clear that some of our science, such as particle physics, can only operate at a supranational level, but that is not the case for the science carried out at all the EIROs.

Of course, there are programmes that will benefit us. The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap represents a very direct way in which Europe can and will influence the future of the EIROforum members, since some of us feature in this roadmap. The creation of the European Research Council (ERC)(1) is of crucial importance for the future of excellent science in Europe, including science carried out by the EIROforum partners.

What effect will the ERC have on the EIRO institutes?
The European Research Council, if it is properly supported, will represent a fundamental shift in science funding in Europe. The effects on the EIRO members will initially be indirect. We run research infrastructures that provide scientific services in a wide range of fields to European scientists. The ERC will be providing money to the very best researchers to carry out their scientific research. Therefore, facilities like those in the EIROforum will benefit because these researchers will use them. In general I am very enthusiastic, because the ERC’s purpose is to support excellence in research. This will undoubtedly “boost” European science but there is still a risk that juste retour at the national level might dampen the positive effects of the ERC. I hope that the ERC will be strong enough to resist this tendency.

You have chaired EIROforum for the last six months. How did this mandate change your perspective of EIROforum?
I am fascinated by the range of activities in which EIROforum is involved. There is hardly a day without an e-mail suggesting that EIROforum participate in a science exhibition, a science conference, a recruitment fair… the list is endless. EIROforum has matured to the extent that it is now accepted as a major player in European science. It is considered as an essential participant at major scientific events in Europe and increasingly, worldwide. This is not really surprising because, after all, each of the EIROforum organisations is a leader in its own scientific field.

(1) Under the 7th Framework Programme, the ERC has become a new financing agency through which the European scientific community chooses to support research into emerging fundamental domains.

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  “EIROforum has become a major player in European science”
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