Fork in the Road

By Colin Macilwain Fork in the Road Will the new European Research Council lead EU science to success or lose its way? Illustrations by Tomasz Walenta nce in a generation, perhaps, a new research agency is born that does unprecedented things. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) got going (after 5 years of argument) in 1951 and its budget hit $1 billion 32 years later, in 1983. The budget of the UK Medical Research Council, which was

Colin Macilwain
Feb 1, 2010

Fork in the Road

Will the new European Research Council lead EU science to success or lose its way?

Illustrations by Tomasz Walenta
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nce in a generation, perhaps, a new research agency is born that does unprecedented things. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) got going (after 5 years of argument) in 1951 and its budget hit $1 billion 32 years later, in 1983. The budget of the UK Medical Research Council, which was founded back in 1913, has not yet reached £1 billion. The European Research Council (ERC) was first conceived in 2002, opened its doors in February 2007, and its budget will pass €1 billion (close to $1.5 billion) next year.

This speed of implementation is unprecedented in global science. Andreu Mas-Colell, the affable Spanish economist who serves as the ERC’s second secretary general, points out that if the then-tiny NSF was described in the 1950s as a...

You might expect cash-strapped scientists to be celebrating this miracle without reservation; but you would be mistaken. Although the fledgling agency is widely admired and its grants for all disciplines of science have already emerged as an immensely prestigious stamp of approval, there is widespread apprehension that the ERC is too good to be true, that its largesse and reputation can’t last. Powerful fears persist that instead the agency, lacking a permanent structure, will lose its initial focus on scientific excellence and, like other EU programs before it, fall victim to excessive bureaucracy and political demands that it distribute money more evenly between competing nations and interest groups.

“The big issue is how much freedom the ERC will have,” says John Wood, head of engineering at Imperial College London and chair of the European Research Advisory Board (ERAB), which advises the Commission on science policy. In common with other senior European scientists, Wood holds that the European Commission (EC) rules that grip the ERC—including hiring restrictions, stringent audit demands, and other form-filling requirements—could stifle its ability to operate as a top-notch research agency after its initial phase. “If they keep it inside the Commission, it won’t work.”

A short series of events are, between them, set to determine the ERC’s fate. The first was the spin-off, last July, of the ERC as an “Executive Agency,” which enjoys a degree of autonomy from the European Commission in Brussels, but still falls under the EC and maintains some EC officials in senior positions. The second was in November, when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, a former Irish justice minister, was nominated as commissioner for research and innovation at the European Commission. Next comes the appointment of the first senior scientist to serve as director of the ERC—a post for which applications close on March 5th. In the months that follow, the next phase of Framework—the European Union research program, of which the ERC is part—will begin to take shape, determining the agency’s mission and budget from 2014 until 2020. At present, the ERC is theoretically only constituted until 2017.

By the end of this year, it will become a great deal clearer whether the ERC is likely to evolve into a titan of research excellence, dwarfing other European science agencies and offering support comparable to that provided by the NSF on the other side of the Atlantic. Or if, on the other hand, the fledgling agency is set to fall victim to the bureaucracy and political intrigue that have consumed previous European Union research initiatives.

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he architects of the ERC saw the delivery of large, portable grants to individual researchers as a critical step towards developing a truly European research community, comparable with the US one. The idea was put forward by Denmark in 2002. It was initially opposed by states with large and highly rated research councils of their own, particularly the United Kingdom. But eventually, Britain and the European Commission itself came round, and the ERC was incorporated into the Framework 7 program, with a budget of €7.5 billion from 2007 to 2013, growing at a steep incline.

Ernst Winnacker, the former director general of the DFG, Germany’s largest research funder, and a heavyweight figure in European science, was brought in as the first secretary-general of the new agency.

By the end of this year, it will become a great deal clearer whether the ERC is likely to evolve into a titan of research excellence, dwarfing other European science agencies.

Since its launch, the ERC has operated just two programs, both for individual scientists: starting grants, for early-career researchers, and advanced grants, for established principal investigators. In both cases, funds are preallocated into four disciplinary pots: life sciences, physical sciences, social science, and interdisciplinary. But within these broad headings, money is allocated to specific disciplines proportionate to the number of eligible applications received. The first rounds of funding went well, with more than 9,000 researchers, for example, applying for the first 300 “starting” grants.

“Our approach is to empower particular researchers, and especially young researchers,” says Mas-Colell. “We are very emphatic that our grants are all portable, so they emancipate individuals,” enabling them to take the money to whatever EU facility they choose.

The ERC’s Scientific Council, chaired by Fotis Kafatos, a Greek molecular entomologist based at Imperial College London, has helped to appoint about 15 researchers to each of 25 discipline-specific review panels in each program (starting and advanced). And despite some initial difficulties, the Council has won widespread acclaim for its early grant allocations.

For grantees such as Virpa Lummaa, a Finnish evolutionary biologist at the University of Sheffield in England, a €1.2 million “starter grant” from the ERC has served as a remarkable boost. Lummaa was on maternity leave when she first heard the grants were available, and soon found that the multidisciplinary nature of her work—studying why women, almost alone among female mammals, lose the ability to reproduce in the middle of their lives—was well suited to the new agency’s criteria. “Because I work with humans in a zoology department, it’s sometimes difficult to get funding,” says Lummaa.

Since the grant was awarded in 2008, Lummaa has taken on a team of seven graduate students and postdocs, and has won additional funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council to study why elephants—whose child-bearing and rearing habits resemble our own—don’t have a menopause. She finds the administration of the ERC grant to be straightforward: “There’s very little I have to do. The grant is very flexible, you can change your plans if you want,” she says. “When I got it, I’d just had a kid and I wasn’t sure if my career would be finished.” Instead, the university threw a party to celebrate the fact that Lummaa and Jon Slate, a departmental colleague, had both been winners in the ERC’s first round of funding.

Molly Stevens of Imperial College, another winner in that round, is using her 5-year, €1.7 million grant to look at the use of dissolvable materials in regenerative medicine, as well as nanomaterials as ultra-sensitive sensors to detect biomarkers for cancer or other disease.

Stevens was impressed by the swiftness and thoroughness of the two-stage selection process, which involved a shorter eleven-page introductory application followed by a more detailed second one, involving a seventeen-page form plus some ethics information, with an interview before a 15-strong review panel in Brussels.

One “minor irritant,” she says, is the audit demands placed on ERC grantees, including timesheets for all staff. “They’ve called for more paperwork than we expected,” she says. Still, she is enthusiastic about the broader impact of the grant on her career. “I’ve noticed very strongly that, in Europe, it is immediately recognized as a sign of quality,” she says. “From that point of view, it is hugely prestigious.”

As expected, most of ERC’s awards went to nations that already have a strong scientific base. Many less-advanced EU member states got no grants at all. That clashes with “juste retour,” the frequent assumption in EU politics that nations will get back roughly what they put into EU programs. However, scientific leaders in the less successful states have, on the whole, continued to back the ERC, telling their respective national governments that the failure to win grants should encourage them to do more for science domestically.

The agency has maintained a bare-bones structure, with 350 staff—including 45 PhDs hired last year to serve as its scientific officers. Total administrative costs are limited by statute to 5 percent of the budget and, according to Pablo Amor, head of grant management, are currently held at 3.1 percent.

“People are very happy that it’s got so far,” says Mogens Flensted-Jensen, a mathematician at the University of Copenhagen and vice chair of a group that wrote the blueprint for the ERC in 2003. “Very few people believed that this was really possible.”

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ut behind the scenes, difficulties have been mounting. Referees, who thought they were doing the new agency a favor by contributing their time for free, were asked to send the Commission their passports in the mail, to prove identity. Those travelling to the review panels, including many from outside Europe, were taking months to get their fares back. The researchers discovered that the grants themselves were contracts that came with strings attached, including yearly financial audits and monthly timesheets for each team member, allocating their hours to particular “milestones” in the contract.

These issues burst open last summer with the publication of a bluntly worded external review of the ERC. The review said that the split between science and administration at the ERC—with the Scientific Council controlling grant selection, while Commission administrative staff, largely nonscientists, do the rest of the work—was a recipe for failure. “The prevailing view that scientists should advise but management should be assumed by nonscientists prevents the critical integration of content and process,” the report said.

This may sound arcane, but for experienced scientific administrators it strikes at the heart of the matter. An agency run largely by scientists (such as the US NSF and National Institutes of Health) will deliver excellent science, they believe. An agency run by career bureaucrats could, in the end, succumb to political pressure, and award money on criteria other than scientific excellence.

The external review said that the ERC had worked so far only because the personalities involved—Janez Potocnik, the former research commissioner; Jack Metthey, a Commission official and its current director; Kafatos; Winnacker; and his successor Mas-Colell—had pulled in the same direction.

The Commission responded to the review on October 22, addressing the structural question head on by promising to appoint a “distinguished scientist with robust administrative experience” as director, combining Metthey’s and Mas-Colell’s roles. It also pledged short-term reforms to its committees and administrative procedures and, in the medium-term, an attempt to change the audit requirements and other financial rules that govern its grants.

For many senior scientists, these improvements to the administrative side of the ERC don’t go far enough. “In my view, the Executive Agency cannot be the solution,” Winnacker says in an email. He adds that, until he left in June, the agency was managing to “ignore to a large extent” what it regarded as the “intrusion” by the Scientific Council. “Eventually, this division has to be rectified, through the creation of a more independent structure,” which would be run by scientists and free from administrative interference.

Other scientific heavyweights tend to share this view. “[The question of ERC structure] should have been sorted out at an earlier stage, and it’s got to be addressed now,” says Wood. He stresses that the new director’s appointment is “critical,” adding that “if we have a research commissioner who doesn’t support it, the ERC will be dead.”

However, critics are unspecific about how the Executive Agency should change. And Commission officials argue that keeping the organization affiliated to the European Commission offers the ERC the best protection from political interference by member states (in particular, from those states who have scant prospects of winning any ERC grants).

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“Some in the scientific community were of the view that the Commission was likely to interfere politically,” says a senior Commission official intimately involved in the nurturing of the ERC, who asked not to be named. “Our view was precisely the opposite. The Commission’s duty is to control the ring, and maintain a level playing field across the member states. That’s one reason for having the Executive Agency. It was also the only politically tractable way of doing it.”

Even the critics concede there’s something in that. Iain Mattaj, director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, says that the appointment of a single director, merging the current roles of director and secretary-general, “goes some way towards a long-term solution for this.” He agrees that a completely fresh structure, outside the Commission, would be a gamble: “You might succeed, but it creates lots of potential problems—including, above all, the prospect of political interference.”

The consensus among ERC watchers is that bureaucratic problems with the new agency—the passport demands, timesheets, and audits—are surmountable, and may retreat over time. The institution issues, regarding the potential clashes between the Scientific Council and the Commission, will be tougher to address.

In the medium-term, the likely appointment of the former Irish justice minister as Potocnik’s successor is probably good news for the ERC. Geoghegan-Quinn herself has no track record in research, and was unavailable for comment as this article was written, pending her confirmation hearing in the European Parliament in January. But Ireland—which has built a model basic research agency of its own, Science Foundation Ireland, from scratch since 2003—was an early supporter of the ERC, leaving its supporters quietly optimistic that she will back it strongly.

The next piece of the jigsaw is the appointment of a new director. Some are already questioning retirement rules that will preclude the candidacy of Mas-Collel or other scientists more than 60 years of age. “This probably cuts the pool of good candidates by 50 percent,” says Helga Nowotny, an Austrian social scientist and vice president of the ERC’s scientific council. “I still hope there will be a number of good ones.”

These changes will come to fruition just as behind-the-scenes discussions start to take place on Framework Program 8. Most expect that the ERC will have a prominent part in it: many leading researchers say they want its budget to be doubled, to €15 billion from 2014 to 2020. But the recession could presage an almighty dogfight over the next EU research budget.

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nitially, the sudden growth of the ERC was resented and feared by participants in the rest of Framework. The great bulk of Framework 7’s €54 billion budget goes to collaborative, applied research projects, and ERC’s architects had feared a backlash from its participants against the further expansion of ERC and its steadfast support of basic research, in Framework 8. “The trouble with support for basic research is that it tends to eat up everything else,” one senior consultant involved with Framework told me anonymously.

However, this criticism has so far been subdued, says Ian Halliday, the president of the European Science Foundation and a key backer of the ERC. “They’ve been remarkably quiescent,” says Halliday. He notes that the academic and industrial players in the rest of the Framework program hate EC financial rules, too, and may come to look on the ERC as a means of reforming these. “The ERC’s successes and shortcomings may now be used to benefit the rest of the Framework Program,” says Theo Papazoglou, an official who works for the ERC Scientific Council. “So a group that might have been critical of the ERC may now benefit from it.”

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There’s also a rift among supporters of the ERC, with some backers already calling for an extension of the ERC’s remit in ways that others think will threaten its culture of excellence. For example, Jerzy Langer, a physicist and former Polish science minister, says: “The ERC can get its budget doubled provided it enlarges its scope—especially for collaborative grants.”

There are, in fact, all sorts of additional activities that could go to the ERC: including support for graduate students (currently the Marie Curie program), support for large infrastructure projects, and cash to help build stronger research universities.

“We are very reluctant to take on new tasks,” cautions Helga Nowotny, the vice president. “It is much too early: we still have to fully develop what we have.” Nowotny says the agency needs to concentrate on supporting “frontier research” and develop such aspects as how to work with India and China rather than taking on new missions, such as education or infrastructure development.

Luke Georghiou, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, warns against reading too much into scientists’ enthusiasm for the ERC. “It still has to be regarded as an experiment,” he says. Georghiou cautions that the new agency still has enemies. “People in the Commission are not that keen on the ERC,” says Georghiou. “They regard these kind of things as smash-and-grab raids on their budgets.”

An external review of the ERC said that the split between science and administration at the ERC—with the Scientific Council controlling grant selection, while Commission administrative staff, largely nonscientists, do the rest of the work—was a recipe for failure.

“Everyone is very scared of giving it extra tasks because of juste retour,” says Flensted-Jensen. “But I think, in the long run, there is some scope for adding things, such as Marie Curie.” Like other scientific leaders interviewed for this article, he envisages the ERC eventually broadening out to cover more than just individual-investigator grants, but wants it to do so cautiously.

“The ERC has been a great success,” says Leszek Borysievicz, chief executive of the UK Medical Research Council. “But the big issue is that it must maintain its focus on excellence. There’s a real risk that it could get diverted into ‘cohesion’,” he says, using the European language for actions that seek to level the playing field between rich and poor European nations.

Kafatos says he could envisage both infrastructure and collaborative projects as potential directions for the ERC in the long term. “But at least for the next few years I’d like to focus very much on what we are doing now and do it better, and on a longer time scale.”

Jack Metthey, a former biologist and software engineer and the Commission official serving as the ERC Executive Agency’s first director, says: “We have the ambition to be a world-class frontier research organization, but we have to do it in a European way. And it is not only frontier research; it is to influence the rest of European research and Framework. We really believe that the ERC is a laboratory for this that will have an impact on how EU research is managed, especially in Framework 8.”

Metthey adds: “I wouldn’t ignore the teething problems that we’ve had; we are subject to financial regulations, like any other EU body. But we are learning fast.”

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