Improving ERC Ethical Standards

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Science  06 Sep 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6150, pp. 1043
DOI: 10.1126/science.1244098

Imagine sitting over a pile of applications submitted to one of the most prestigious funding agencies. Suddenly, what you read appears familiar—not only the idea, but its terminology and the methods proposed. You recognize entire sentences because you wrote them. This scenario must have been an utter surprise for one of the European Research Council's (ERC's) evaluation panel members who, last year, stumbled across the most bizarre case of scientific misconduct that the organization has witnessed so far. The proposal, submitted some years earlier to a funding agency on a different continent, was copied by one of the reviewers, a highly recognized scientist, and then submitted to the ERC. It was pure chance that the former applicant detected the fraud.

The anecdote illustrates not only the difficulties of detecting scientific fraud, which any funding agency in the world faces, but also the problems that the ERC is trying to fight. Since its beginning in 2007, the ERC Scientific Council established a strict set of rules for how to deal with fraud, conflicts of interest, and scientific misconduct. However, the larger legal framework of the European Commission (EC) under which the ERC operates links “fraud” only to financial aspects. The ERC is then obliged to report any (accomplished or attempted) misbehavior to OLAF, the European antifraud police. Financial fraud, however, causes the least headaches. In the above case, the ERC was unable to take action against the mischievous applicant.


The EC rules require funding agencies to avoid institutional conflicts of interest. A research proposal cannot be evaluated by a person from the same host institution as the applicant. In the case of a single legal entity, such as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, this would seriously limit the function of reviewing panels. In 2012, the ERC achieved an exemption from this constraint. To fill the gap between the general legal rules and the desired system of high ethical standards, the ERC Scientific Council established in 2009 a standing committee to deal with ethical issues. So far, the ERC has evaluated more than 30,000 proposals, and the number of colleagues serving on its review panels approaches 3000. During the same time, the number of detected cases of misbehavior was under 30. But the temptation to be dishonest remains for some, as ERC grants represent exceptional prestige and money.

In 2011, an applicant from a respected European university forged a document. The researcher's university was told, but reacted only after the person reapplied and forged another document. The ERC lacks the legal means to exclude such an applicant from future funding competitions. It therefore urges host institutions to be more proactive and follow up in cases of suspected misconduct of researchers they employ. This includes imposing sanctions when the facts warrant it.

The ERC has strict policies on conflict of interest. To avoid bias in the evaluation procedure, the ERC requires any evaluator with an institutional connection to the applicant to leave the room when the application is discussed, as this is considered a disqualifying conflict. However, for close personal relationships, such as spouse, parent, and child, or other close personal bonds, this is not sufficient. Such a relationship is considered a strongly disqualifying conflict of interest, and the evaluator is required to withdraw from the call for proposals entirely.

The ERC is constantly learning, improving its rules as it moves forward. With the vigilance of its panel members, reviewers, and scientific officers and stronger cooperation from host institutions, it will succeed in not accepting anything less than the highest standards.

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