ERC must keep ‘excellence’ focus, says commissioner

Carlos Moedas defends research council as discussions build over next framework programme

March 21, 2017
Carlos Moedas, European Union (EU) Commissioner
Source: Alamy
Carlos Moedas, European commissioner

The European commissioner for research, science and innovation has defended the European Research Council's "geographically blind" basis for distributing grants, which critics say disadvantages weaker science systems in eastern Europe.

Carlos Moedas, speaking in Brussels to mark the ERC's 10-year anniversary, urged delegates to "remain united" in a "vision of an ERC based on scientific excellence".

"The ERC is unique because it has a purely excellence based approach to science. One which is geographically blind," he said.

"We must remain united in defending an open, excellence based vision of science with the ERC as a spearhead. Regardless of how many member states the EU will have in the coming years," he added.

There have been longstanding concerns that because it focuses purely on "excellent" research, the ERC distributes the vast majority of its grants to already successful research countries such as the UK and Germany. In 2015, for example, EU countries that have joined since 2004 – mostly in Eastern Europe – won just three ERC advanced grants out of nearly 300.

This system has been called "Robin Hood in reverse", with Eastern European researchers having "next to no chance" of winning a grant.

With the UK – which has been a big winner of ERC grants – leaving the EU and possibly it's research framework programmes, the balance could be tipped in favour of a more redistributive approach.

Mr Moedas also announced that the ERC would be given an extra €50 million (£43.3 million) in funding for the duration of the EU's current research framework programme, Horizon 2020.

Comments by Pascal Lamy, former director general of the World Trade Organization and chair of a panel scrutinising EU research spending, also indicated that the ERC will continue to play a large role in future framework programmes. None of the group reviewing Horizon 2020 had questioned that the ERC has been a "clear success", he told delegates.

But Europe needed to make sure its innovation was as good as its science, he said. "Europe's capacity to transform new knowledge into a better life [for citizens]...needs to be improved," he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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