European Research Council must be independent

The Max Planck Society calls for decision on the establishment of a European Research Council before the end of 2004

March 08, 2004

A European Research Council (ERC) should operate strictly according to the established international standards of independent science funding - research projects should be judged by their scientific quality alone and not according to criteria unrelated to science. These requirements are the outcome of a meeting of leading representatives of European research organizations and research policy makers, who gathered in Berlin on March 1, 2004 at the invitation of the Max Planck Society. The discussions focused on the quality of research in Europe and the question of whether and how Europe’s competitiveness can be enhanced by an ERC. A European Research Council would have to be independent of the European Commission, have a very streamlined administration, and be headed by highly qualified scientists. The German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, expressly supported this initiative as a means of competition; Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Association) called for appropriate funding structures, which should only serve the means of science. Professor Lord Robert May, President of the "Royal Society" in Great Britain, criticized the research funding by the European Commission as being utterly unsuitable for science. Prof. Armin von Bogdandy, Director at the Heidelberg Max Planck Institute for International Law, pointed out that the legal form of an "Executive Agency" could not possibly guarantee the ERC the necessary degree of autonomy.

In view of the decisions made in Lisbon and Barcelona to turn Europe into the most competitive economic and scientific region in the world by the year 2010 and to increase spending on education and research by an average 3 percent of the GNP, the European Union is faced with the question of how to go about increasing funding for basic research at the European level for the future.

Criticism of the way in which research has been supported by the EU funding programs to date, with innovation being exploited for business interests only and judged only according to the requirements of regional policy and its impact on economic growth, unites the majority of the scientific community in the whole of Europe. This is why at science policy conferences there have been repeated demands to react to these challenges with a strong European research-funding organization guided by scientific principles alone - a European Research Council (ERC). This was most recently confirmed in Dublin in mid-February at a high-ranking conference among scientists and ten European research ministers.

In his welcoming speech to the distinguished group of experts, Professor Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society, emphasized the problems with which researchers today are faced with regard to the application process under the European research-funding program: "Can Europe still forgo orienting itself on success models? Can it still ignore benchmarking results?" If highly qualified scientists are forced to justify their projects by means of potential applications and have to conclude complicated contracts, this could hardly be the right way to achieve added value in Europe, he said.

In her statement, the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, expressed her support for the proposal to establish an ERC. An ERC would have to prove "that under the science sector´s own responsibility support for European basic research can involve faster decisions and less bureaucracy". The key to modernizing the European research systems is "bringing more competition among the best researchers", which is still clearly lacking. In order to reach the top international level, she also called for "more networking across national boundaries", "more opportunities for young scientists and new channels for supporting unconventional research approaches" as well as "new channels for supporting unconventional research approaches". "…we need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles in order to give the science sector room to breathe".

Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), stressed how fragmented the funding activities and standards currently are in Europe, owing to the inhomogeneous research policy structures of the individual countries. This gives rise to an inconsistent level of "peer review" and a lack of career openings for researchers in Europe. Moreover, the Commission will only be able to raise a fraction of the amount of funds spent on research by the member states. Winnacker therefore suggested that, besides establishing an ERC, cooperation between the national research organizations should be strengthened. Only experienced scientists would be in a position to manage an ERC in such a way that would meet science requirements. Winnacker proposed that the European Union Research Organizations Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs) should attend to the conceptual and structural details of an ERC.

In Berlin, the President of the British Royal Society, Professor Lord Robert May, was very enthusiastic in his support for the establishment of an ERC. In his opinion this should not only function separately from the bureaucratic regulations of the European Commission, it should also ensure that no non-scientific criteria are applied. For this reason the ERC should absolutely not be located in Brussels. May made a case for the establishment of a founding council consisting of 12 scientists - without however any "apparatchiks".

In a recently published communiqué, the European Commission announced the prospect of funding basic research under the new 7th research-funding program. Through the extension of the Union, research can expect to receive more funds, whereby industrial research and technology programs will absorb large amounts of such funds. Of the 40 billion euros requested by the Commission for the 7th research-funding program, between 500 million and 2 billion euros are being considered as an allocation for basic research.

However, the scientific community fears that the European Commission does not want a European Research Council to have sufficient autonomy and is considering the legal form of an "Executive Agency". Professor Armin von Bogdandy, Director at the Max Planck Institute for International Law made a crucial contribution to the progress of the deliberations on the practical legal structure of an ERC: He warned against consenting to the legal form of an "Executive Agency" as this would not guarantee "substantial operational autonomy". The Commission would then "nominate and control all institutions of the ERC, and could intervene in its plans".

According to his appraisal of the European Treaty, the only conceivable type of agency for the ERC would have to be established in compliance with Article 171, under which "joint undertakings or any other structure necessary for the efficient execution of Community Research" can be established and, in the organs of which a larger number of representatives of the sciences can be members.

Those attending the conference agreed that an ERC should only fund excellent scientific research teams and proposals for creative projects that are not necessarily mainstream. The choice and assessment of topics ought to be made by scientists who are experienced in research management and in whom the scientific community places its trust.

Well known scientific representatives of the new entrants to the EU also took part in the Berlin conference and as the Polish Minister of Science, Professor Michal Kleiber made clear in his speech as well as in statements from the representatives of Hungary and Estonia, they are also in favor of an ERC.

There was also agreement that the fundamental decision on an ERC must be made before the end of the second half of 2004. The Research Minister of the Netherlands, during whose time as President of the Council this decision will take place, has already expressed a very positive view of the matter.

The most significant conclusions of the conference have been summarized by Max Planck President, Professor Peter Gruss, in an English language statement. It is an appeal to the German government, the governments of other European countries and to the European Commission to initiate the steps required in order to found a European Research Council as soon as possible.

Go to Editor View