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European Research Council to remain under the Commission’s helm

The European Research Council will remain under the wing of the European Commission in the next EU research funding programme, albeit with increased autonomy 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 today (12 July), the task force in charge of reviewing the ERC governance says it is “too early” to set up such a separate structure for the ERC outside the European Commission.

At a press briefing held in Brussels today, ERC president Helga Nowotny told Research Europe that being under the Commission’s wing sheltered the ERC from yearly national budget negotiations and pressures, as the EU functions with a 7-year budget framework.

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

The report plans several changes to improve the efficiency of the relationship between the Commission, the ERC scientific council and the ERC executive agency. In particular, the task force suggests dispensing with the “highly prescriptive” Memorandum of Understanding between the Commission and the ERC executive agency.

Former ERC secretary-general Ernst Ludwig Winnacker, who sat on the task force, explained: “Since the director of the agency is responsible anyhow to [the Commission’s] DG research, it is unnecessary and bad practice to let this dependency interfere with daily intrusions by DG research.”

Also, the report recommends appointing an ERC president, based in Brussels, who will devote 80 per cent of his or her time to ERC business. He or she will take over from Nowotny at the end of her term in November 2013, and should be an “eminent scientist” nominated by the ERC scientific council and approved by the Commission, Nowotny says.

These arrangements may be reviewed in the future, “but certainly not before the mid-term of the Horizon 2020 programme” in 2017, the report says.

The task force was made up of 14 members, including Smits, Winnacker and Nowotny, and was set up in December of last year.