European Research Council to streamline peer review process and hire a scientist to run the agency in response to criticism by independent review panel

The European Commission has responded to heavy criticism of the European Research Council (ERC) by pledging to streamline its peer review process and hire a ’distinguished scientist’ to run the agency.

One of the main criticisms that emerged from an independent review of the ERC published in July was that its rules prevented a high profile scientist being recruited as director. Now, a scientist with strong administrative and managerial experience will be sought to fill this role.

The new director will report directly to the commissioner for research, and the executive agency’s steering committee should include two members of the scientific council, and an external distinguished scientist. The Commission hopes that this will provide a better link between the scientific and administrative sides of the agency, and ensure all its operations are fully transparent. 

’There is already a strong scientific potential in the ERC Executive Agency – out of 245 persons, 45 have a PhD, ’ says Jack Metthey, interim director of the ERC. ’But placing a person with a ’distinguished scientist’ profile as director will be a strong signal to the scientific community, and will reaffirm the ambition of the Commission to establish the ERC as a world-class frontier research organization.’

Criticisms of the cumbersome nature of the peer review system for grant applications have also been addressed. The agency will develop less onerous administrative procedures for appointing and reimbursing reviewers and, ultimately, find a way of appointing experts for the whole period of the framework programme, and not just individual years. 

In the longer term, the Commission plans to enter into a wider discussion with both the European Parliament and Council of Ministers about how the regulatory framework for research and technological development can be better adapted to meet the needs of scientific research. The review panel identified that many of the perceived problems within ERC result from the ’culture of control’ caused by current financial regulations, which define how and on what EU money can be spent. The review panel suggested that moving to a system of providing lump sums rather than grants based on contracts might help, and that this should be combined with an approach based on trust rather than cumbersome regulations and controls.

The Commission says that many of these issues are unlikely to be solved within the timescale of the current framework programme, and longer term changes will be needed. The triennial review of the financial regulation system is imminent, and the Commission believes this will allow these issues to be addressed. ’The appropriate balance between risks, which are inevitable in the conduct of cutting edge research, and the protection of the financial interests of the Community through the Financial Regulation has to be found,’ it says. 

According to science and research commissioner Janez Potocnik, these actions should improve the ERC’s performance and guarantee its long term stability. ’But our ambition goes further,’ he said. ’It will allow us to feed the debate on the Community’s rules for supporting research and innovation.’

Since it was launched in February 2007, ERC has given out nearly 600 grants, totalling €900 million (£817 million). Part of the Seventh Framework programme, it has a budget of €7 billion for the seven years from 2007 to 2013.

Sarah Houlton