Experts give European Research Council passing grade

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Europe’s fledgling scientific funding body is on the right track but has major organisational flaws which threaten its long-term viability, according to a no-nonsense analysis by a panel of experts. 

The European Research Council is too bureaucratic and needs more scientists in its management team, but has nonetheless been immune from political interference, according to a report drawn up by a group of research policy experts. 

Earlier this year, the Commission appointed the panel, headed by former Latvian president and university professor Vaira Vike-Freiberga, to review the ERC’s development (EURACTIV 25/2/09). 

EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik focused on the positive points made by Vike-Freiberga, but the full report offers an unflinching assessment of fundamental problems which threaten to throw the project off course. 

The review panel said it was deeply concerned that the present governance structure of the ERC is complex and a “source of great frustration and ongoing low-level conflict”. 

In her report, Vike-Freiberga stressed that the ERC has “succeeded beyond expectations” in attracting outstanding scientists to serve on its peer-review panels, which have doled out millions of euro to 600 scientists in its first two years. 

However, the former psychology professor said there were causes for concern about the long-term sustainability of the scheme under the present operating conditions. 

“At the most fundamental level there is an incompatibility between the current governance philosophy, administrative rules and practices and the stated goals of the ERC,” the report says. 

The panel also called for stronger “leadership and competent professionalism” and suggested involving scientists in the running of the organisation. 

It says scientists should run research programmes in the same way as it seems natural for legal services to be run by lawyers. “This flaw in construction should be urgently remedied,” the report says, adding that a permanent committee on conflicts of interest should be set up to ensure that the scientists are not partial to their former research institutions or their own disciplines. 

In the report, Vike-Freiberga, who also serves as vice-president of the reflection group on the long-term future of the EU, says the rules designed to prevent fraud and mismanagement should be overhauled. A system based on trust rather than suspicion is proposed in order to cut down on excessive bureaucracy. 

Other key conclusions include: 

  • The roles of secretary-general and director of the executive agency should be merged into one post and a recognised scientist with administrative experience should be recruited. This scientist should report directly to the commissioner. 
  • The ERC should expand in size and importance in the next framework programme (FP8) and ultimately evolve into a permanent Community structure. 
  • Another independent review should be conducted of the project in two years’ time. 
  • If the review shows that structural changes are necessary, the ERC could be established under Article 171 of the EU Treaty, which allows research bodies to be set up which are accountable to the European Parliament and the European Council. 

EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said the ERC is still a young agency and has been an exceptional success to date. He acknowledged that some organisational issues need to be addressed, but stressed that the ethos of the Council is based on building an autonomous research body funded from the Community budget. 

He said the ERC should become the "European Champions League" of top researchers. 

"We believe strongly in the idea of the ERC as a learning organisation. The Commission's objective is to create an autonomous and accountable institution, financed by the Community budget, that will increasingly attract the best scientists from around the world. On the basis of early experience, we have already done a lot to develop and improve the operation of the ERC. This must continue and we recognise that we cannot afford to be complacent." 

The commissioner has repeatedly stressed that the ERC should operate in the wider European interest rather than be sucked into political haggling over how to allocate funds. 

"One fundamental red line for me is the Community nature of the ERC – that is an ERC that works in European interest, an ERC that is resistant to any pressures that would work against scientific excellence. I believe the Commission will always have a role in guaranteeing this European character and with it the autonomy of the ERC. How to best exercise this role can of course be discussed, but the Commission is by definition the one European institution which is mandated and uniquely placed to protect the Community character and the autonomy of the ERC," he said. 

Speaking at the launch of the report, panel chair Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia, said the ERC was created just two years ago and has been "a great success story". She praised the agency's peer review system, and the good will shown by the scientific community and the political will shown by the Commission. 

However, she said there are difficulties that could endanger the project's future success if not corrected. 

"The ERC is of evolving strategic importance to Europe and is already having a substantial positive impact on the European research scene. The sustainability of this success and the aim of building the ERC into a world class agency depend, however, on adjustments to the operating philosophy and a constancy of the vision that led to its establishment in the first place." 

"Improvements to the ERC structure are needed to integrate scientific and administrative aspects of governance and to streamline and simplify procedures. We hope that the Commission will act on our recommendations swiftly, as the ERC presents a novel and essential instrument for European research," she said. 

The European Research Council was officially established in February 2007 to support researchers and raise scientific standards across Europe. Identifying broad scientific trends, boosting industry and knowledge are among its stated aims, with some even proposing the lofty goal of boosting Europe's number of Nobel prizes. It has a budget of €7.5 billion for the years 2007 to 2013.

Internal wrangling over its legal status and governance structures have been a feature of debate on the ERC since its inception, with the European Commission consistently pushing for the body to be an executive agency answerable to the EU executive. 

A number of member states favoured establishing the ERC as a legal entity separate from the Commission, an idea also backed by the main scientific organisations in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK. 

The Commission is concerned that if it loses control of the body, it would ultimately distribute research funds according to national quotas instead of scientific merit (EURACTIV 21/05/07). This was a point stressed by Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik at the launch in 2007 (EURACTIV 28/02/07). 

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