ERC defends concentration of grants in top research universities

Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, has strongly defended the high percentage of ERC grants that go to Europe’s top universities.

Speaking at the fifth anniversary celebrations of the ERC in Brussels, Nowotny (pictured) said the only way to find the best researchers was on the principle of “excellence only”, and that this comes with an “built-in tension between policy-makers' demands for practical innovation to foster economic growth, and the deeply rooted interests of scientists in curiosity-driven research”.

She added: “If 50% of the ERC grants go to 50 institutions across Europe, it is obvious that they are extremely attractive to some of the best researchers.

“One of the reasons for the research advantage of US universities is the concentration of research funding on less than one-tenth of degree-giving institutions.”

This argument was supported by Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Union commissioner for research, innovation and science.

She said US public sector researchers have, on average, twice the resources of EU public sector researchers and are three times more productive in terms of the number and quality of publications.

“Amazingly, Harvard University alone spends more per year on research than the total research expenditure (public and private) in nine of the EU’s member states,” she added.

In a video message, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said: “The ERC has become a remarkable story for Europe in such a short time. Five years dedicated to supporting 2,500 of the very best, brilliant minds – not least the younger talent – have played a key role in stimulating competitiveness and growth, in the challenging times we are going through.”

Geoghegan-Quinn said the ERC was created at a critical time for European research and has contributed significantly to a European culture of excellence. Even halfway through most of the now 2,500 grant-funded projects, achievements were significant.

“In 2011, each week at least one ERC-supported project published an article in either Science or Nature,” she said.

Nowotny said the rationale for the ‘frontier research’ ERC programme was simply that "we do not know what we do not know".

“We know that it takes on average 15 years to move from an idea to market. The process of translation takes time. No short cuts exist, which would prevent us from attempting to shorten the time lag.”

Amalia Sartori, chair of the European parliament’s industry, research and energy committee, said that parliament would now look into how structural funds and research funds could be linked more closely. A joint hearing of the two relevant parliamentary committees is scheduled.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas backed this standpoint at an address given at the London School of Economics in a series of lectures, "Worldwide Perspectives on Europe". He said generous payments from the Cohesion and Common Agriculture Policy funds have not always brought prosperity to recipients.

“On the contrary, in many cases, this money has acted as a ‘sweet poison’ instead of promoting competitiveness of the target member state,” Necas said.

“Our main task is to reform the EU budget to correspond with the new challenges Europe is facing. To give an example: you and I know perfectly well that the EU is no pre-industrial agriculture-oriented economy. But should an alien land in Europe and look at the EU-budget, he would be very much inclined to think so, since the Common Agriculture Policy still represents over 40% of the whole EU budget. This cannot continue.”