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European Research Council slams EU bureaucracy (Euractiv)

2010-04-09

The work of Europe's scientific funding body has been marred by ongoing tensions with the European Commission and "stupid" bureaucratic rules, agency representatives have told MEPs.

Helga Nowotny, who was appointed president of the European Research Council (ERC) last month, wants the fledgling body to be an autonomous and permanent fixture in the EU's complex scientific landscape, warning that its work has been hampered by Brussels bureaucracy. 

Speaking to the European Parliament's committee on industry, research and industry (ITRE) this week (7 April), she said the ERC's original structure was deeply flawed.

This, she said, had led to "an uneasy relationship" between the scientific and administrative sides of the agency and problems between the ERC and the European Commission's research directorate.

"I must be very frank and honest - the ride has not been as smooth as we hoped. But in the infancy stage, teething problems can be expected," said Nowotny.

She described the ERC's transition to becoming an executive agency as "rather painful" and hit out at the bureaucratic ethos of the European Commission.

"While accountability and control are necessary, there has been a culture clash," she said, advocating a shift from a "culture of control to a culture of trust".

"This ménage à trois was not always an easy relationship," Nowotny told MEPs, adding that she is committed to implementing an independent review published last year. That report called on the ERC to merge the roles of secretary-general and director into a single post and to assign the new role to a recognised scientist with administrative experience.

"We are trying hard to integrate scientific and administrative cultures and we are now in the process of recruiting a director for the executive agency," said Nowotny. The next steps will be to redefine the relationship between the executive agency, scientific council and the Commission, she said.

"I hope the ERC will become a permanent institution and we would like a significantly higher budget," Nowotny told MEPs.

She said the Lisbon Treaty gives scope to create a unique status for the ERC, which would help it to achieve its mission of dramatically boosting research in Europe.

A 'success story' despite hurdles

Nowotny described the ERC as a success story, saying the reception from the scientific community had been very positive.

The agency's work in offering independence to young researchers at an early stage will help tackle the long-standing problem of European scientists leaving for the US, MEPs were told.

"We want to retain the best, repatriate and make Europe an attractive place to do research," she said.

The ERC president defended the agency's focus on "frontier research" - often referred to as 'basic research'. The history of science is full of examples where investigating the unknown has thrown up unexpected results, she said, but this requires bureaucrats to trust top-rated scientists.

Bureaucracy based on mistrust 

Ives Meny, lead author of last year's ERC review, said he had originally been sceptical of the structures underlying the agency but, in spite of this, the body had proven to be a major success.

"It's certainly the diamond in the crown in the research area sponsored by European Union. If some improvements are made, these could serve as a lighthouse for other similar bodies run by the EU," he said.

However, he highlighted frustrations arising from "stupid" bureaucratic rules imposed on researchers and reviewers.

Meny said the next director of the agency, due to be appointed later this year, would have to be a strong character "because the fight with the EU institutions will be fierce".

He said much of the tension arises from financial regulations, which are based on mistrust. "There is a culture of control and audit," he said, claiming that scientists would refuse to apply for funding because the system is so "absurd".

Efforts to make the ERC compete with the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US will fail unless the problem of red tape is tackled. "If the executive agency is just a servant of a larger bureaucracy, forget it - it will not become a recognised research organisation," he warned.

The Competitiveness Council of EU research ministers agreed last month to conduct another review of the ERC in July 2011 to see whether the structural flaws have been addressed.

Positions

ERC Executive Agency Director Jack Metthey said the agency is being run efficiently and has spent less than 3.5% of its budget on administration - allowing it to channel more money to research. All grant money is also paid on time, which has been welcomed by researchers. 

Metthey said that even when applications are refused by the ERC, scientists are often funded by national research agencies. "Already, ten EU member states are piggy-backing on work done by the ERC. When we identify excellent people but cannot fund them; countries often finance on a national basis," he said.

The director said new Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has taken a deep interest in the ERC and will support the changes that are planned for this year.

Greek MEP Ioannis Tsoukalas (European People's Party) said former Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik deserves credit for his work in restructuring the European research umbrella.

However he said the EU would be "deluding itself" to think that the ERC is close to competing with the National Science Foundation in the US. "We dominated science for 400 years but have been playing second fiddle for 50 years," he said.

Tsoukalas warned India could overtake the US and EU, and Brussels' bureaucracy is not helping. "Researchers shouldn't be tied down by bureaucracy in the way that they are. Researchers are sometimes presented as fraudsters, which I don't think is fair," he said.

Portuguese MEP Maria Da Graça Carvalho (Socialists & Democrats) said all possibilities for simplification should be examined and that the ERC could be a catalyst for changing the approach to research funding.

Next Steps

  • Mid-2010: New head of ERC to be appointed, taking over a new role which merges the posts of secretary-general and director of the executive agency.
  • Mid-2011: Review of ERC reforms to be launched.

Background

The European Research Council (ERC) was officially established in February 2007 to support researchers and raise scientific standards across Europe. Identifying broad scientific trends and boosting industry and knowledge are among its stated aims, with some even proposing the lofty goal of boosting Europe's number of Nobel prizes. It has a budget of €7.5 billion for the years 2007 to 2013.

Internal wrangling over its legal status and governance structures have been a feature of debate on the ERC since its inception, with the European Commission consistently pushing for the body to be an executive agency answerable to the EU executive. 

A number of member states favoured establishing the ERC as a legal entity separate from the Commission, an idea that has also been backed by the main scientific organisations in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK. 

The Commission is concerned that if it were to lose control of the body, it would ultimately distribute research funds according to national quotas instead of scientific merit (EurActiv 21/05/07). This was a point stressed by Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik at the launch in 2007 (EurActiv 28/02/07). 

A report last year said the ERC is on the right track but has major organisational flaws which threaten its long-term viability (EurActiv 27/07/09).