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Commission holds onto European Research Council

Smits promises no excessive control or micro-management

The European Research Council will remain under the wing of the European Commission in the next EU research funding programme, albeit with a simpler structure and a stronger role for the ERC president.

Under the Lisbon treaty, which entered into force in 2009, the EU is allowed to create more autonomous structures for bodies such as the ERC. But in a report released on 12 July, a task force in charge of reviewing ERC governance said it is “too early” to set up such a separate structure for the ERC outside the Commission. The possibility “is still untested and needs legislation around it”, said ERC president Helga Nowotny at a press briefing in Brussels on 12 July.

The task force’s recommendations are not welcomed by at least one scientists’ group. Euroscience, the Strasbourg-based network of European researchers, laments a missed opportunity to make the ERC fully independent. Peter Tindemans, a member of Euroscience’s governing board, told Research Europe: “There’s no real argument [in the report against full independence], apart from the fact that it’s something new. But that’s not true—it’s been done at the national level,” he said, referring to national research councils, which are independent of government.

Iain Mattaj, an ERC observer and researcher at EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in Heidelberg, Germany, praises the task force’s “genuine attempt” to remove unnecessary bureaucracy between the agency and the Commission. But he, too, sounds a critical note by saying that the ERC’s existing structure remains a “recipe for conflict if the wrong people get together”.

“There is nothing to worry about in the short-term, because the current incumbents, Helga Nowotny and Robert-Jan Smits, are really committed to the [ERC’s] idea. But it’s not the right structure for the ERC in the long-term; it needs to be single-headed and more independent from the Commission,” he says.

Defending the task force’s decision, Nowtny said that being under the Commission’s wing sheltered the ERC from annual budget negotiations, as the EU functions on a 7-year budget framework. “It’s an enormous advantage, a relief from lobbying and haggling,” she said.

Robert-Jan Smits, the Commission’s director-general for research, added at the briefing that the Commission would remain the ERC’s umbrella organisation, but would refrain from excessive control and “micro-management” of its activities.

The report proposes a simpler working relationship between the Commission, the ERC scientific council and the ERC executive agency. In particular, the Commission will delegate more scientific and administrative responsibilities to the ERC scientific council and to the executive agency.

The task force also recommends removing the post of secretary-general of the scientific council and instead delegating the ERC president to lead the council and be the public face of the ERC. The president would be based in Brussels and would devote 80 per cent of his or her time to the ERC; this is in contrast to the present arrangement in which Prof. Nowotny is hosted by her home institution, the Vienna Science and Technology Fund, in Austria and is receiving honorary payments for her participation in the plenary meetings of the Scientific Council, as well as some local administrative support covered by the ERC.

In addition, the task force suggests setting up a private foundation, to be called “Friends of the ERC”, that would be able to receive donations for the ERC. This money could be used more flexibly as it would not be governed by the Commission’s regulations. “My guess is that it is unlikely to ever be a major part of funding, but it is a potential attractive organisation for donations so it makes very good sense,” Mattaj comments.

The task force had 14 members, including Smits and Nowotny, and was set up in December 2010, after recruitment of a director-general for the ERC was abandoned. This post already planned to merge the existing roles of ERC secretary-general and director, as recommended by an external report in 2009 [RE 25/11/10, p4].