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‘We need to plan with vision and perspective, as well as funds and quality structures’

What is the purpose of the European Research Council? It is a new organization of European scientists chosen in the most unimpeachable manner as individuals, not as representatives of their countries. The council will administer a major new program, the Ideas program, to support the best scientists, engineers and scholars using the best models at international level, and focusing on rewarding scientific excellence. Our aim is for Europe to raise its standards for producing science. When will this program begin and with what capital? The Ideas program is part of the seventh Framework program on research (2006-2013) and I believe it will receive capital of about 1 billion euros a year. Otherwise there would be no point. Of course, the EU’s research activity does not begin and end with the Ideas program, but the ERC hopes the program’s success will have a positive effect on the totality of educational and research work. No compass What are the EU’s challenges in the research sector? Is it still not able to close the gap that separates it from the US and Japan? This is unfortunately still the case. You know, the quality of research cannot be measured in what I might call «vulgar» ways: in funds, percentages and figures. We need more substantial, qualitative criteria. What is certain is that in a number of sectors Europe appears to be losing ground. For example, fewer and fewer European scientists are winning Nobel prizes. The gap is widening, not only between Europe and the US or Japan, but with emerging forces such as India and China. Even smaller countries, such as Singapore, have opened up fronts and are making changes that have taken us by surprise. What does Europe lack? A compass! And it has been lacking for some time. I think that we lost it when we believed that the discoveries we needed for the necessary applications already existed and all we had to do was make use of them. This was a completely mistaken, narrow economic viewpoint, for the production of knowledge does not wait, it moves ahead at an accelerated rate. What is happening in molecular biology today, for example, is something we could not have imagined just five years ago. If we rest on our laurels, we will be left behind. That is why basic research should not be abandoned. Without basic research, new knowledge, there is no applied research. Yet there is the feeling that Europe excels in basic research, in academic knowledge and is behind its competitors in technological applications. I think that those who know are aware that the alleged European paradox is a lie. Indeed, we are behind in making use of knowledge, but we are also behind, at least to the same degree, in the primary production of pioneering knowledge. What should the EU and its governments do? There are countries that function as examples. At European level, Finland is of particular importance. Twenty years ago it was a poor country; now it is first in Europe in research and technology, together with Sweden, surpassing even the USA, proportionately, of course. We need to plan for the future, with vision and perspective. Of course, considerable funds are also needed, but combined with quality structures to encourage excellence. It is very important that we scientists are honest with each other and in our relations with the state. How do you comment on the Greek paradox – the existence of many pioneering researchers, yet a lack of research? I can’t judge since I have been away for so many years, but I believe everyone realizes the need to invest in knowledge and research. I believe we will rise to the challenge, since Greeks – both here and of the diaspora – have shown great capabilities.