Published online 22 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1037

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Brussels concedes to European Research Council reform

Top scientist will take over management and administration of funding body.

Fotis KafatosFotis Kafatos, president of the European Research Council, says that the ERC reforms are welcome but not particularly revolutionary.FRANK BARON

The European Commission has agreed that a top scientist with managerial experience should lead the administrative and managerial activities of the European Research Council (ERC) in place of the Commission's own current appointee. The move, announced on 22 October, comes in response to a damning review of the ERC published in July (see European body told to cut free). That review called for immediate reforms to the council's management, or risk the body failing as a world-class institution.

The ERC is the first pan-European initiative to fund frontier research judged solely on the basis of excellence. It was established two years ago and is administered by an executive agency under the Commission's control. The review of the ERC, led by the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, found that the ERC's management arrangements were a source of "great frustration and low-level conflict". These included rules that meant funding was awarded as contracts rather than grants, requiring researchers to document in detail any time spent working on ERC-funded projects. An investigation by Nature also revealed that Commission bureaucracy was causing peer reviewers to refuse to work for the ERC, threatening the body's future (see Red tape strangles basic research grants).

In an attempt to remedy the ERC's struggles, the Commission has endorsed the review's recommendation that a new director of the ERC's executive agency should be appointed, one who can "better combine the science and administrative aspects of the ERC's governance". The ERC's scientific council, which is made up of top scientists and is responsible for the body's science strategy, will have a say in the selection of the director. The vacancy is expected to be advertised imminently and an appointment made early next year.

Announcing the reforms, Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potočnik said in a statement: "Two and a half years after its start, the ERC is regarded widely as a success and an influential component of the European Research Area. We are now announcing steps to help the ERC shift from its pioneering to its mature phase. Our actions and those under the responsibility of the scientific council will further improve the ERC's performance and guarantee its long term stability."

Contract killers

But the Vīķe-Freiberga report on the ERC recommended that a further review of the council take place in two years' time, to establish whether the Commission's reforms were working. If the reforms were ineffective, the report suggested that the ERC should gain full administrative independence from the Commission. However, the Commission's response does not address this suggestion.

Fotis Kafatos, president of the ERC, told Nature that the further review of progress "should be maintained. It's important to have successive reviews of the ERC. It is a crucial matter that the ERC is recognized as an upstanding and strong institution".

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Kafatos, who is also chairman of the ERC's scientific council, welcomes the Commission's agreement to appoint a top scientist with managerial experience as director of the executive agency but adds that the Commission's response as a whole is not "particularly revolutionary or extensive".

The Commission also plans to put forward proposals to reform the rules governing the use and management of European Union funds so that ERC funding can be awarded as lump sums rather than as contracts. Any reforms, which are expected to be finalized by mid-2010, must be agreed on by the European Council, which is made up of the heads of state and the European Parliament. 

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