European Research Council launched

Can a new European agency lift scientific research out of the doldrums?

Today saw the launch in Berlin of the European Research Council (ERC), at a press conference attended by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other assorted dignitaries.

Dr Merkel said this morning that the ERC would become “a champion’s league for research”, and once again give scientists the freedom to be innovative and creative.

Spanning two full days, the ERC launch meeting will focus on how the council can act as a driving force for innovative research in Europe, and what contribution it can make to the development of a knowledge-based society and economy. Another issue to be discussed is how the ERC can position European research within a global context.

The ERC has been given a budget of €7.5bn to cover the period 2007–2013. Part of the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7), the council will focus solely on fundamental, or “blue skies”, research, and is led by Fotis Kafatos, a professor of molecular biology at Imperial College London.

Talk to European scientists, and most will probably complain about their lot. Research funding has declined markedly in recent years, and infrastructure been neglected. Much exciting research is being done, but, from a career perspective, it’s not a good time to be a jobbing scientist in Europe. Or most other places for that matter.

As I wrote in a recent article for Nanomaterials News, both the EU and US are slipping down the rankings. In its recently published Science Technology and Industry Outlook 2006, the OECD forecast that China will have spent more on research and development than Japan in 2006, putting the country in third place – after the US and EU – in terms of total investment. China’s investment in R&D as a whole has risen from 0.6 to 1.3% of GDP in the last decade, and its aim is to reach 2.5% by 2020. In comparison, European expenditures have remained fairly static, and the situation in the US is little better.

In Europe today, research is funded largely through member state research councils, and in some cases – the UK included – the situation is fragmented, with separate councils for each broad subject area. In the UK, the old Science and Engineering Research Council was wound up in the early 1990s and replaced with a number of agencies, all competing for funds from a central government pot.

Research and educational charities also play a part, but there is on the whole little private funding for scientific research. Few philanthropists seem willing to fund research activities other than in the biomedical sciences (e.g., Wellcome Trust).

As for Europe-wide funding, the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) came to an end last year, and recently we saw the launch of FP7. Compared with national budgets, the amounts of money allocated through the Framework Programmes are small, and the system has been criticised for being over-bureaucratic and skewed towards big projects that benefit engineering industry, but which are not necessarily designed for maximum scientific exploitation and output. EU-funded research is also seen by many as being subject to excessive political pressures and unreasonable reporting requirements.

With these problems in mind, the ERC is taking a very different approach. Out goes the need for funded projects to be “collaborative” or pan-European, and out too goes the concept of “juste retour”, whereby member states each get back what they put in, via lucrative contracts for domestic companies and research institutes. There is also no longer any categorisation of research into particular themes. The focus is now on the individual leading scientist – or Principal-Investigator (PI) – and the aim of this bottom-up strategy is to foster creativity.

This has to be a positive move, but the way in which the ERC intends to go about it raises a number of questions.

For example, when the EU has just implemented anti-ageism rules that prevent discrimination on the grounds on age in the workplace, the ERC appears to be discriminating in favour of young scientists, in restricting its first €300m in grant funding to researchers who have held their PhD degrees for no more than nine years.

Of course, the term “young” is now deprecated, and absolutely forbidden in job vacancy notices, but everyone knows that “early-stage researcher” and “young scientist” are synonymous. Why do policymakers assume that scientists only do good work in their youth, or when they are brilliant but absent-minded professors? Exactly what is it that happens to scientists in early middle age? Maybe they take an extended siesta.

The ERC grant application process is a lot simpler than for the Framework Programmes or national research councils with which I’m familiar. Still uncertain is how funded projects will be assessed, and what reporting requirements will be imposed on PIs, either by the ERC directly, or through the management of institutes holding the grants.

When many scientists are unhappy about measuring individual researchers’ output through counting peer-reviewed papers and citations, are we likely to see the same kind of crude assessment being carried out by ERC administrators? Academic bean counting encourages what is known as “salami science” – the submission to journals of “least publishable units” – and mutual citations to bump up the numbers.

What will be the relationship between the national research councils and the ERC, and between the ERC and the European Commission (EC)? The ERC’s initial funding is coming through FP7, but if the experiment is successful and the new council expands, will it take money from national agencies, or will the new money be in addition to that allocated to national research councils?

UK parliamentarians and the Confederation of British Industry have expressed concern about the political independence of the ERC from the EC. Realistically, the ERC cannot be totally independent of the Commission, given the importance of scientific research to policy development in the EU. But how do we secure the greatest possible independence for the ERC, which it will need if it is to carry out its mission?

And what of the long-term future? Do we actually need national research councils when so much scientific research is already supra-national in scope? Maybe we should look at how the new European Research Council operates in practice, and, if it is successful, consider merging the national agencies into a decentralised and confederal ERC. The US and EU are similar-sized political entities, and the US makes do with one overall research council, the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As a supporter of the EU, but critic of its centralist and managerialist nature and current practice, I’m cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the ERC. The UK was initially sceptical, and civil servants advising the former science minister Lord Sainsbury were united in their opposition to the ERC. To his credit, Sainsbury did a mid-flight about-turn while on his way to a discussion meeting in Brussels. Legitimate concerns aside, the minister thought through the issues, and came round to the view that the ERC could return to European research the focus it lost many years ago.

I hope he’s right.