EU: Research council slams bureaucracy

The work of the European Research Council, the body charged with boosting science in Europe, has been hampered by too much bureaucracy, its new president told a European Parliament Committee last month.

Helga Nowotny wants the fledgling body to be an autonomous and permanent fixture in the EU's complex scientific landscape. She told the European Parliament's committee on industry and research that its original structure was deeply flawed.

Internal wrangling over the ERC's legal status and governance structures has been an issue since the council's launch in February 2007. The commission has consistently pushed for the body to be an executive agency answerable to the EU executive but several member states originally favoured establishing it as a legal entity separate from the commission.

This was an idea also 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.

Nowotny said this underlying tension 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.

"The ride has not been as smooth as we hoped. But in the infancy stage, teething problems can be expected," she said.

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 were necessary, there had been a culture clash and she advocated a shift from a "culture of control to a culture of trust" where blue skies science could be encouraged.

Nowotny added she was committed to implementing an independent review published last year and led by Ives Meny. The review 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 would be to redefine the relationship between the executive agency, scientific council and the commission.

"I hope the ERC will become a permanent institution and we would like a significantly higher budget," Nowotny told MEPs. The council has a EUR7.5 billion (US$10 billion) budget for the years 2007 to 2013.

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

Despite its original structural problems, 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 would help tackle the long-standing problem of European scientists leaving for the US, she added.

Meny agreed the ERC had proved a success, despite its original underlying structure: "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.

But Meny, too. highlighted frustrations arising from "stupid" bureaucratic rules imposed on researchers and reviewers. He said much of the tension arose from financial regulations, 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 was so "absurd".

Efforts to make the ERC compete with the National Science Foundation in the US would 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 had been addressed.

Greek MEP Ioannis Tsoukalas of the European People's Party also criticised EU bureaucracy, saying it was partly responsible for Europe's inability to compete with the science foundation. He added that India could overtake the EU and the US in the future.

"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, of the 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.