The European Research Council shouldn't be coy about saying who will get its first set of grants.
The first Europe-wide research agency to distribute funding purely on the basis of scientific merit is working with commendable efficiency. Its officials have just ploughed through more than 9,000 first-stage applications for the inaugural programme of grants and asked 559 of them to submit a complete application. Around half of these shortlisted candidates will eventually win five-year grants worth up to €400,000 (US$550,000) per year.
The European Research Council (ERC) has done well to get so far within eight months of its official creation. But it is already facing criticism for its reluctance to reveal the exact distribution of nationalities on the shortlist. The ERC's decision to keep this information to itself for the time being can be read two ways: as a failure to be transparent or as a pragmatic response to a tricky political environment.
The ERC's mission is perhaps unprecedented in the brief history of the European Union (EU). It has to distribute large amounts of European money — building up to €1 billion a year within a few years — to the best research proposals, regardless of nationality or other political criteria. Both the EU member states and the European parliament have fully signed up to this mission.
Nonetheless, the young agency's leadership can expect to take some political heat if, as is likely, most of its grants go to those EU countries that are already most established scientifically. A comparable dilemma has been encountered in the past by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency that, perhaps more than any other, the ERC seeks to emulate. NSF grants have always flowed disproportionately to certain states, such as Massachusetts and California, where US scientific excellence is most heavily concentrated. The agency has dealt with the political challenge that this presents by publishing reams of relevant data upfront, while developing programmes (at the prompting of Congress) that assist researchers in the states that do less well with their applications. It has done this without compromising its criteria for grant selection.
One of the council's top priorities is to make sure that it establishes a reputation for excellence in its processes. It must do this to win the solid support of European scientists ahead of its first formal evaluation by the EU authorities, which will take place in just two years' time. For now, the council is still negotiating the details of the final EU executive agency within which it will eventually operate. Evaluation of grant proposals, meanwhile, is being overseen by a modest number of staff, most of whom have been seconded from national research agencies.
It is in this fragile context that the ERC is eager to avoid rocking political boats by publishing a national breakdown of who is being considered for its first grants. Instead, it has broken down the shortlist into the groups of nations that joined the EU at different stages of its evolution.
So it has revealed that 45% of the applicants, and 53% of the winners, come from Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — the six original members of the European Economic Community, as it was then known. The nine countries that joined after 1973, but before the entry of the former communist states, account for 36% of applications and 27% of the winners. The 12 members who have joined since 2004 did not do so well, putting in 9% of the applications and winning 5%. (Nine 'associated countries', such as Russia and Israel, as well as participants from farther afield account for the rest of the applications.)
Ultimately, a commitment to transparency will have to override the European Research Council's concerns about giving offence.
Policy-makers might benefit from fuller information about the geographical distribution of both those who apply and those who make the shortlist, if only as a snapshot of how excellence in European science is currently distributed.
And according to its mission statement, the ERC is “committed to providing public information about its activities in a transparent and timely manner”. Ultimately, that commitment to transparency will have to override the council's concerns about giving offence.
EU politics, in its complexity and fickleness, is likely to pose challenges for the new research agency at some stage. But Europe needs the ERC to be openly committed to uncompromising selection of the best. Sooner, rather than later, the ERC needs to commit to full publication of data on its selection processes, to defend these processes to the full, and to let the political chips fall where they may.
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Division of labour. Nature 448, 727–728 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/448727b