ERC Review Panel Doesn't Pull Punches, Advocates Fixing "Original Sin"

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

"An obsolete model of management." "Completely abusive" demands on reviewers. A governance system that is "a source of great frustration and ongoing low level conflict." Who said E.U. science policy needs to be dull?

An independent review presented today doesn't pull punches when it describes the structures and management procedures of the European Research Council (ERC), Europe's new basic research funding agency. The review flags a number of problems in the funding agency's management, but stops short of endorsing a new legal status that would make ERC fully independent from the European Commission and its often complex regulations, as some scientists at the ERC had hoped. Instead the panel, which included former National Institutes of Health head Elias Zerhouni, urges a series of "immediate" reforms and another independent review in two years time.

Overall, ERC, which has more then €7 billion to spend on investigator-driven research between 2007 and 2013, has done a good job, says the panel, chaired by former Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. It has even "succeeded beyond expectations" in attracting scientific talent. But the group comes down hard on what it calls the ERC's "original sin": the separation between science and management.

Who controls ERC, founded in early 2007 to fund research based solely on excellence, has been under dispute from the very beginning. The agency’s very existence was a radical concept for the European Union, where political negotiations typically determine how money is allocated. That’s why scientists have strived to make the agency as independent as possible from the European Commission. Currently, an independent Scientific Council chaired by Imperial College London molecular biologist Fotis Kafatos charts the ERC's scientific course, but day-to-day management rests with a so-called Executive Agency in Brussels that is formally autonomous. But that word is "quite misleading," the panel concludes, since the Commission controls the agency's steering committee. Although the Scientific Council has a representative in the Executive Agency—Secretary-General Andreu Mas-Colell who assumed that post 3 weeks ago—he has no formal powers (In a recent exclusive interview with ScienceInsider, Mas-Colell did reveal a new grant level ERC will be offering and his hopes to increase female participation for ERC funds.).

This "old-fashioned" dichotomy, the review states, puts the ERC's long-term credibility at risk. "It should not be acceptable today in Europe that non-scientists [...] run major European research programmes!" the panel writes with indignant punctuation. It even resorts to using upper case occasionally to make its point, demanding "a true PROFESSIONALIZATION both at the scientific and managerial level."

Managers within the Executive Agency are unfamiliar with academic traditions, clash with the Scientific Council on a regular basis, and make the grant review process much more cumbersome for volunteering scientists than needed, according to the panel. For instance, reviewers need to mail in a copy of their passport, which the panel calls an "abusive" requirement, and sometimes have to wait forever to be reimbursed for travel expenses they pay out of their pocket. Furthermore, the grant review software is cumbersome and difficult to use. "I review for a large number of international funding bodies and this was the worst experience I have had in 30 years," one scientist told the panel. "I would not agree to review again."

The panel recommends a slew of measures that can be implemented right away to fix the managerial problems, such as streamlining the governance structure; merging the roles of secretary-general and director of the Executive Agency into a single post to be filled by a top scientist; and smoothing review procedures. But it does not advocate the Scientific Council's favored solution: Wresting control from the Commission completely by giving it a special status made possible though Article 171 of the European Community Treaty. Although this would require new legislation that could be difficult to enact, an Article 171 body would be the best fix for the ERC's "birth defects," says Helga Nowotny, vice-president of the Scientific Council.

Vīķa-Freiberga's group proposes going this route only if a new review in 2011 shows the problems to persist—a Solomonic verdict that pleases both sides. "It's a very fair and balanced report, and the recommendations are wise," says Nowotny. "It's a good, honest report that will help all of us a lot," European Commissioner Janez Potočnik told ScienceInsider this afternoon.

The Commission will issue a formal response by October, but Potočnik—who is praised by the panel for keeping ERC from political interference—says the Commission is already working to fix the problems. Potočnik will not oppose an Article 171 structure if it proves necessary, he adds.

Posted in Europe