Task Force: No Need to Pull Research Council Out of European Commission

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

Despite their often tumultuous relationship, there is no need to cut the European Research Council (ERC) loose from the European Commission and create a new, independent organization to manage it, a task force said in a report issued today. With some adjustments, the current structure—a source of major friction in the past—can continue, says the group, which included top officials from the ERC and the commission.

The 4-year old, €7.5 billion ERC has become popular with scientists, many of whom consider it the best part of Framework Programme 7, the European Union's 7-year, €55 billion research program that ends in 2013. But its governance has long been problematic.

The agency's Scientific Council sets the strategic agenda, but has had trouble imposing its will on the Executive Agency, the Brussels-based organization that does the day-to-day work of the ERC and is controlled by the European Commmission. This has led to massive frustration, according to a highly critical 2009 report by an external panel that called the management model "obsolete." That group advocated a series of improvements; if those didn't work, the ERC might have to become completely independent of the European Commission, it said.

Today, the picture is very different, says the president of the Scientific Council, Helga Nowotny, who sat on the task force that produced the new report. Nowotny at several points almost quit the ERC in frustration. But now, she says, the ERC's Executive Agency has become more professional, procedures have been streamlined, and tensions with the Scientific Council have eased.

That's why the new taskforce advocates leaving the current situation intact—although with some changes that loosen the grip of the European Commission while strengthening the powers of the Scientific Council. The ERC president will become a full-time, Brussels-based employee, for instance--Nowotny is essentially a volunteer in Vienna—and the council will get a stronger say in the Executive Agency.

Some observers say creating a new, truly independent body would have been preferable. "The scientific community has been very pleased by the ERC's performance, but it worries that it will be sucked into the European bureaucracy," says geologist and E.U. policy expert Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. "Now, it will require more vigilance."

The task force also identified several ways to make life easier for ERC-funded scientists—for instance by abolishing timesheets for full-time grantees and reducing the number of audits. But Boulton says those reforms don't go far enough; to know that its money is well spent, all the ERC needs to check is whether its grantees publish in scientific journals, he says.

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