Analysis concludes that the European Research Council needs to change its management structure to improve its efficiency

A European Commission task force charged with evaluating the operating structure of the European Research Council (ERC) has concluded that, although the Council has performed well in its first five years, changes are needed to improve its flexibility and efficiency.

A key recommendation of the report, published on 12 July, is transforming the position of ERC president from 2014 onward into a Brussels-based position, with the president ’devoting at least 80 per cent of his/her time to ERC business’. The report also recommends strengthening the role of the director of the ERC Executive Agency, responsible for managing the research council.

Under the current structure, the president’s position, now held by Helga Nowotny, is filled by whoever is chairman of the Scientific Council, the ERC’s governing body, which organises funding strategies and methodologies. A Brussels-based secretary general appointed by the council oversees operations. The task force recommends that the position of secretary general, which is currently vacant, be abolished and those duties transferred to the president. These changes should improve day to day management of the agency and improve financial oversight.

The ERC was formed in 2007 as part of the EU’s Seventh Research Framework Programme and has a budget of €7.5 billion spread over six years. It is the first pan-European funding body for what the Council calls high-risk, high-reward frontier research. ERC grants are awarded in open competitions for so-called starting grants, aimed at younger researchers, and advanced grants, for established researchers.

Jos Engelen, a vice president of the European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs), tells Chemistry World the recommendations appear to be a ’direct copy of national research organisations, but lifted to the European level’.

Engelen, who is also the president of the governing board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), says that, in principle, he could support the recommendations. ’As long as they serve the purpose of channeling a larger part of the EU budget into research and development and innovation, I support them,’ he says. But he adds that safeguards are needed to ensure that the ERC remains transparent in order to avoid ’another EU institution starting to lead a life of its own’.

Noting that EU member nations still operate mostly politically and economically independent at the national levels, he says that even under a stronger ERC, member states’ national research councils would not be in favour of transferring their national roles to the ERC. ’That is simply too big a step to make,’ he says. ’It remains very important to maintain very good contact between the ERC and the national research councils.’

Perhaps sensing such concerns among national research councils, the European Commission’s statement announcing the final report emphasised that the recommended changes are ’designed to reinforce the ERC’s flexibility, efficiency and autonomy - without compromising its accountability - and to make it easier for researchers to apply for and manage ERC grants’.