Two-year review highlights fundamental operational problems within the European Research Council

A review of the European Research Council (ERC), set up by the EU two years ago to promote high-risk, high-gain ’frontier’ research, has concluded that although successful in attracting top-level scientists, the organisation is riddled with fundamental operational problems that throw the scheme’s long-term sustainability into question.

The review panel, led by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a psychologist and former president of Latvia, described the ERC as a ’major improvement in relation to the existing funding structures in Europe,’ but highlighted that ’at the most fundamental level there is an incompatibility between the current governance philosophy, administrative rules and practices and the stated goals of the ERC’ that lead the panel to call for a vigorous ’professionalisation’ of the entire body.

One of the major flaws identified was that current rules prevent the ERC from recruiting highly qualified scientists to run the agency. ’It should not be acceptable that non-scientists who have not had the direct experience of conducting successful science enterprises themselves run major European research programmes!’ the review stated. ’This flaw in construction should be urgently remedied.’

The panel also criticised excessive bureaucracy - saying that while fraud and mismanagement need to be prevented, ’excessively bureaucratic procedures’ and ’cumbersome regulations, checks and controls’ are not the best way to build up a world-class institution. The review calls for ’a new set of rules, based on trust, and not suspicion and mistrust’.

This bureaucracy and inapt approach appeared to be particularly evident in the ERC’s handling of scientific reviewers, with the panel noting that ’the reported signs of frustration and dissatisfaction with existing rules and practices among scientific council members and scientific reviewers at large are a worrying indication of the fragility of the present equilibrium’ and highlighting that the management of reviewers, referees and panellists had been a source of ’serious misgivings amongst the research community,’ both in Europe and abroad.

’We don’t want ERC only to be here for two years - we want it to be stable and delivering on a long-term basis,’ says European Commission spokesperson Catherine Ray. ’The panel identified some points that should be addressed to make it more sustainable in the long run. Overall, we are quite happy with the review. Its logic very much coincides with the Commission’s own conclusions, as we were aware that some things had to be improved.’

Despite these criticisms, ERC is enabling good science. Tom Welton, head of chemistry at Imperial College London, received a ?1.2 million grant over five years for work on ionic liquids, in collaboration with theoretician Tricia Hunt. ’A big advantage is that it’s long, so you have the opportunity to build up a real head of steam,’ he says. ’It’s allowed us to open up an entirely new area, and that would have been very difficult with a standard [Engineering and physical science research council] grant. It complements what’s available in the UK.’

The five-year funding gives them the opportunity to explore areas that might not work - but would be really exciting if they did, Welton says. 

As well as the inevitable bureaucracy that comes hand-in-hand with EU projects, a further drawback is that the grant only allows for 20 per cent overheads - nowhere near the full economic costing that is the UK norm. ’The college recognises the prestige of the award and is willing to take the 20 per cent on the chin, but if it had been a [full economic costing] project it would have had half the people or twice the money. That would be unsustainable if a department had a lot of these types of grants.’

Sarah Houlton

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