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For the first time, researchers in developing countries will be able to apply for European funding under nearly the same terms as European researchers, as opposed to a limited amount of funding for earmarked projects.

The first round of calls for the European Union's US$69 billion Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will be announced on 22 December.

"By facilitating international cooperation we aim to create a science programme that meets real social and economic needs, both in the European Union (EU) and worldwide," said Antonia Mochan, spokeswoman for Janez Potočnik, the European Commissioner for science and research.

Priority areas of research identified for developing countries include health, environment, transportation and agriculture. In particular, the seven-year funding mechanism emphasises innovation for rapid diagnostics for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and tests for drug resistance.

Researchers from developing countries will be eligible for all funding mechanisms, as long as they apply as part of a team that includes at least three EU member states or EU partner countries.

There is also specific funding available in each of the priority areas, for which up to two EU and two non-EU countries can apply in collaboration. 

The programme will give precedence to projects mutually beneficial to the EU and developing countries.

"When it comes to which countries are involved in cooperation, there are no hard and fast rules. We aim to be pragmatic. Calls for proposals will end up being more specific than general rules," Mochan told SciDev.Net.

Last February extra funds were made available under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to promote cooperation between researchers in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the EU and Latin America (see 'EU to open projects to developing country scientists') .

South African researchers are among those who took up the offer, in conjunction with the European-South African Scientific and Technology Advancement Programme.

FP7 aims to improve on this success and promote competition. Over 300 proposals of intended participation in FP6 came from South Africa alone.

"Whereas FP6 had projects put aside for international cooperation, in FP7 it can potentially be part of all programs, so the funding is less ring fenced. There is still a small budget for very specific activities but it's much more open," says Mochan.

FP7 will run from 1 January 2007 until December 2013. Information on how to apply for funds can be found at the website of the Community Research & Development Information Service.