Research Council chief: More cash, less change for Horizon 2020

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Under the European Commission’s new proposal for funding the eighth framework programme – Horizon 2020 – the European Research Council (ERC) is set to see a 77% boost in funds to €13.2 billion. ERC President Helga Nowotny tells EURACTIV that Horizon represents a validation of its success.

Helga Nowotny is a leading Austrian social scientist who became president of the European Research Council in 2010. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming from Budapest. The ERC is based in Brussels.

The Horizon 2020 paper has seen a boost for the ERC. Are the figures as spelled out in the paper definitive?

Nothing is definitive in times of crisis and moreover, the figures are those proposed by the European Commission. They still have to be confirmed in lengthy negotiations with the European Parliament and Council. Over the last five years, however, the ERC has proven to make a real difference. Its impact on the integration of the European Research Area is beyond any doubt and, if I may be honest, also beyond what we had expected. The ERC is a game-changer and its success has been underlined by the scientific community, member states and other stakeholders.

The budget rise would allow more top researchers, of which [there are] many younger ones, to pursue their pioneering research in Europe. Above all, it's in these difficult times that funding science and innovation in general, and excellence and frontier research in particular, is crucial for economic recovery.

I think all this is what the proposed figures reflect and honour. So I am pretty confident that the ERC will receive a substantial increase in its budget under the H2020 framework.

How much difference do you believe that the Horizon 2020 proposals will make to the ERC programme?

Two issues are at stake here. The first is whether the budget proposal for Horizon is finally agreed. The other concerns the governance structure. Fortunately, the ERC Scientific Council was wise enough to press for a high-level solution of this issue very early.

So in effect, already in 2011 a task force, led by the Commission’s director-general for research, Robert-Jan Smits, set out its recommendations on how to streamline and consolidate the ERC structure: the relation between the ERC and the Scientific Council, and also the relation between the ERC and its parent organisation, DG Research and Innovation.

Looking at it now, it becomes obvious how important the timing was. This task force developed its ideas well before the Commission started to carve out the H2020 legislation. While in the FP7 we had to fit the ERC into the already existing legal framework, this time round, the H2020 legislation will have to take into account what the task force recommended for the ERC. So, again, I am pretty confident that the ERC will improve substantially under the new framework.

How much of an influence will the new ‘societal challenges’ themes spelled out in Horizon – such as climate change, and healthy and active ageing issues – have over the types of research projects that are selected? Will it have any structural impact on the way in which new research projects are selected?

This question can be understood in two different ways: For the ERC, the new themes spelled out in H2020 will have no direct impact. The ERC is committed entirely to a bottom-up approach of frontier research in all fields of science and scholarship, the evaluation of which is based on the sole criterion of excellence.

We must and will not deviate from this. Indirectly, there might be an impact insofar as new research foci might become strongholds of excellent research, thus enabling researchers working in these areas to apply for ERC funding. But this is actually what is happening in the interplay of politics and science from the very beginning of research funding. Politics has always steered the direction of research, simply by setting priorities and allocating money to one field or another. So, on a general level, I assume that there will be a structural impact.

Do you believe that the new synthesis with the structural funds will impact on how you select further ERC disbursements? If so, how?

I do not think that the way we select grantees will be affected by the synthesis with the structural funds at all.

We have a very well defined, widely acknowledged evaluation procedure. Except for simplification, the worst thing to do would be to alter this process. Everyone in the European Commission understands that.

Will an increase in funding require any changes to the management or direction of the ERC in the future?

Overall, I believe the ERC core funding schemes are well established and I do not see the necessity to change this substantially. Of course, if the budget increases, a major part of these additional funds would be used to further close the funding gap for younger top researchers; this would mean increasing the share for the starting grant. One could possibly also envisage a relative slight reduction of the budget of the advanced grant in favour of the synergy grant, if this scheme proves to be successful. But in the end it will be up to the Scientific Council to decide. And, as you might know, the Scientific Council will be newly composed in 2014, so fresh eyes might detect needs that were not yet addressed.

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