ERC must ditch ménage à trois for new 'friends'

July 14, 2011

The European Research Council should be reorganised and given more autonomy to end the sense of a "ménage à trois" involving its governing and executive branches and the European Commission.

That is the conclusion of a report, published this week, on how the council should be structured in the next European Union funding period, beginning in 2014.

The ERC was set up at the beginning of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme in 2007 with a remit to fund basic research.

According to the ERC task force report, it has "fulfilled and perhaps surpassed the very high expectations placed upon it by the research community and political actors".

It also provides a "powerful dynamic for driving up the quality of the European research system" by offering a "gold standard" in peer review and by stimulating universities to compete to host an ERC-funded principal investigator.

But the task force, consisting of representatives from the council and the Commission, admits that "sub-optimalities" have resulted from the overlapping responsibilities of the Commission and the ERC's governing and executive branches.

It says that more responsibility for deciding on scientific programmes should be passed from the Commission to the ERC's governing science council. It also says that the council's president should be based in Brussels and spend at least 80 per cent of his or her time on ERC business. The current ERC president, Helga Nowotny, is based in Vienna.

The report suggests that the Commission relax its "prescriptive approach" to overseeing the ERC executive agency and minimise bureaucratic demands on researchers, such as timesheets and institutional audits. It also recommends the creation of a "friends of the ERC" foundation that could accept philanthropic donations without the money becoming subject to standard restrictions on EU spending. This would allow donations to be earmarked for specific projects.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, said action would be taken to "get the ERC on the best possible footing for the future".

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