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.