EDITORIAL

Frontier Research in Europe

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Science  11 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5984, pp. 1327
DOI: 10.1126/science.1190995
CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Next month, the Fourth Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF 2010) opens in Torino, Italy, to discuss the frontiers of science and technology in Europe and to stimulate policies that bridge the gap between science and society. In this context, the current European research landscape can hardly be imagined without the innovative funding programs of the European Research Council (ERC), which has selected its 1000th grantee just over 3 years after its launch. As the new president of the ERC, I am particularly pleased to continue building on past achievements while preparing for the challenges ahead.

Established by the European Commission (EC) in 2007 as part of the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Union (EU), the ERC funds curiosity-driven bottom-up research by individual investigators based exclusively on the principle of scientific excellence in the 27 EU member states and “associated countries.” The ERC is supporting a new generation of young researchers who seek to break out of academic hierarchies and their national funding systems to obtain early scientific independence. It also supports established researchers in pursuing risky ideas that might lead to new discoveries across all scientific disciplines. But beyond providing trustworthy and fair funding opportunities that are open to researchers from all over the world (provided that they work in Europe), the ERC carries European added value. For the first time ever, universities in Europe compete for the prestige of hosting ERC grantees, acknowledging the importance of internationalization and of nurturing the most talented younger researchers. In the new EU member states (such as Poland), serious efforts are being made to revamp national granting systems, following the ERC model. Moreover, a number of countries have decided to rely completely on ERC evaluation by providing research support to semifinalists of the Starting Grant Call who could not receive ERC funding due to budgetary constraints.

CREDIT: MICHAEL JENNER/ALAMY

But questions persist about the institutional structure of the ERC. An unusually frank report by a Mid-Term Review Committee in July 2009 laid bare structural problems related to its governance and procedural issues, such as the registration of remote referees and reimbursement of panel members. The recommendations were reinforced by the Competitiveness Council of Member States in March 2010, which endorsed another review before July 2011 to assess whether structural adaptations are sufficient or a new institutional model must be set up. At the heart of the matter is the dual construction of the ERC. Its Scientific Council, consisting of 22 eminent scientists, sets the scientific strategy, whereas the administration and implementation are in the hands of an Executive Agency, composed of nearly 300 staff (with about 45 Ph.D.s). The question is how to better align an ambitious and vibrant world-class funding agency with the rules and regulations of the EC. The recruitment of a distinguished scientist with robust administrative experience as the new director of the Executive Agency is now under way, merging the present functions of the ERC secretary-general and the director of the Executive Agency administrative side.

The future of the ERC beyond 2013 depends on three issues. It must become a permanent institution sui generis, with a structure and mechanisms adapted to its unique mission. Its annual budget must be at least twice its 2013 budget of 1.7 billion euros to ensure sustainability. And while continuing to fund individual excellence through its bottom-up approach, the ERC must expand its program in a forward-looking, innovative way.

At a time when European policy-makers seek to bolster innovation to meet the grand challenges ahead, Europe must vigorously pursue frontier research as the excellent science base from which many new discoveries will arise. The forthcoming ESOF 2010 conference is an important forum for discussing how the future of the most exciting European funding agency can help Europe prosper.

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