The council of research ministers was unable to agree the broad outline of the programme at its last meeting in November. The Framework is expected to run from 1999 to 2003 with a budget in the region of ECU13--16bn.

Earlier this year the European Commission proposed that the Framework should contain three "thematic programmes", but the majority of research ministers favour five -- and some have asked for as many as seven. The European Parliament, which must also approve the plans, prefers four programmes. The Parliament is currently debating some 700 amendments to the original proposal.

The three programmes proposed by the commission are: promoting competitive and sustainable growth; unlocking the resources of the living world and the ecosystem; and creating a user-friendly information society. The commission has also proposed three horizontal programmes: international collaboration; innovation and participation of small and medium-sized enterprises; and improving human potential.

According to officials, the range of research in the 5th Framework will be just as great as in its predecessor. Within physics, there will be support for quantum computing, nanostructured materials, semiconductors, optoelectronics and superconductivity.