Brussels, 31 October 2006
19.10.2006 Type of Procedure: Consultation procedure
REPORT on the proposal for a Council decision on the specific programme: "Ideas" implementing the 7th Framework Programme (2007-2013) of the European Community for research, technological development and demonstration activities
[...] The European Research Council represents an important step at the right time, to consolidate Europe's position as a science centre and to reinforce basic research. A successful ERC can deploy the 'suction effect' which is urgently needed to keep top researchers, or bring new ones into Europe. It is therefore understandable that the idea of the Research Council has received massive support from the research community, and Parliament is also largely supportive. Nevertheless, your rapporteur considers that certain points of the proposal throw up questions which require closer scrutiny.
1. Final structure of the European Research Council
Two alternatives for the final structure of the ERC are up for discussion, the already appointed executive agency, which the Commission quite openly favours, and an independent structure under Article 171 of the EC Treaty. Your rapporteur considers that both have advantages and disadvantages.. The executive agency would ensure that the Commission had a strong influence on the Research Council; this could prove problematic from the point of view of independence. But a structure based on Article 171 of the EC Treaty also throws up a number of questions which must be considered, beginning with practical aspects such as choosing where it is to be based.
Your rapporteur considers that after a trial period of two to three years at the most, independent experts should assess the ERC's experience to date, on the basis of specific criteria laid down in advance, including such aspects such as scientific autonomy while maintaining transparency and responsibility vis-à-vis the Commission, Council and Parliament.
2. Transparency of the work of European Research Council
In view of the significant funds which the ERC will have at its disposal, there must be a certain degree of responsibility vis-à-vis the Council, Parliament and Commission. It is important to prevent any impression that the ERC might become a closed shop.
Including the European institutions, for example by means of a board of trustees, would help transparency and provide further support for the Research Council's work. Your rapporteur considers that it is not sufficient to rely only on the Court of Auditors or the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF. The example of national research councils shows that in all cases there is a more or less strongly defined control by the State, which provides the finance.
All committee members and the director of the American National Science Foundation must, for example, be nominated by the US President and confirmed by the Senate. In the German research community the Federation and the Länder are represented on the main committee in which guidelines are adopted and decisions taken even on individual projects.
Your rapporteur considers that a certain degree of political responsibility must be ensured, at least through an obligation to provide regular reports.
3. Selection and composition of the Scientific Council
The Scientific Council must, as far as this is possible for a body of about 20 scientists, cover all areas of research and the various levels of university and industrial research. It is particularly important, in view of the members' tasks, that they also have know-how and expertise in science management.
In order to keep the Research Council open to new ideas and new research fields, its members' term of office should be limited. A rotation system is also sensible so that there is continuous change and also continuity.
The members of the Scientific Council should be selected and appointed by European scientists alone. This would guarantee the ERC's scientific independence.
4. Ensuring an efficient management structure
A crucial test for the ERC will be how it deals with projects. In view of the wide thematic cross-section many applications are to be expected. These must be processed quickly and efficiently. The Scientific Council and the implementation structure will be faced with a considerable task of developing intelligent solutions. In view of the scarce resources, expenditure on management tasks should from the outset be limited to a certain proportion of the overall budget, to ensure lean management.
5. Guidelines for the work of the Scientific Council
Critics fear that there is a danger that the ERC will be overwhelmed with applications. Therefore the Specific Programme proposes laying down guidelines for the work of the ERC and the selection of projects which set out certain criteria for project selection. Your rapporteur does not think this approach useful. It is a basic precondition that the guidelines for the scientific work of the scientists in the Scientific Council must be laid down autonomously and directed to research needs. This should also apply to the Commission. It is, however, necessary to formulate clear ethical boundaries.
6. The Research Council's financial resources
It is generally agreed that the success of the ERC will largely depend on its financial resources. Only when the necessary critical mass of investment is achieved can the competition effect mentioned earlier come into play. The Commission had originally planned an overall sum of EUR 11 861 billion for the ERC for the whole period of the Seventh Framework Research Programme. This amount is hardly defensible.
Experts rightly regard the necessary 'critical mass' as at least one billion euro per year. This amount must be available for the entire period of the programme, and there should be a continuous increase. Your rapporteur considers that this could mean that less funding would be available in the early stages than at the end of the programme period.
Your rapporteur welcomes the proposal to establish the European Research Council. All those involved are called upon to ensure that the Research Council starts work quickly. Therefore the European legislator must find answers to the questions raised above. Only then will the ERC be a model of success and have the intended positive effect on the position of science.