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November 30, 2011

ERC success rewarded with funding boost proposal

The European Research Council is Framework 7’s ultimate success story. No other programme has created so much prestige for European Commission funding, and has inspired so many individual scientists to take part in the Framework Programme. The ERC, which has two funding streams for early-career and advanced excellent researchers, has, since 2007, funded over 2,200 researchers.

All this, including the creation of the organisation from scratch and the establishment of an independent assessment operation, has been achieved with “only” €7.5 billion in Framework 7. Now, with the Horizon 2020 proposal for the next Framework Programme, the ERC has received the Commission’s knighthood honours.

The proposal would bring the institutions budget up to nearly €15bn euros for 2014-2020. This increase is among the largest for Commission projects carried over from Framework 7 to Horizon 2020 – only the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, whose budget is going up from €300 million to a proposed €3bn, has a higher increase.

There is one specific point to this increase. Europe’s cash-strapped member states are reluctant to raise Horizon 2020’s budget to €80bn, the Commission’s proposal. By giving such a large increase to such a prestigious programme the Commission is trying to make it harder for the member states to cut the proposed overall budget. After all, who can say “No” to the ERC?

But the ERC is also one of the few solid rocks in a Framework Programme proposal that has changed much from its predecessors. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the research commissioner, has taken it upon herself to revamp the programme from the core. Instead of Framework 7’s lofty “ideas”, “people” and “capacities” programmes, Horizon 2020 has more straightforward budgets for “grand challenges”, “industrial leadership” and “excellence”, where the ERC is now housed.

But with increased funding come increased responsibilities. The ERC’s latest project, a third funding stream called “consolidating grants” has not only received praise from the research community. The consolidating grants are supposed to provide funding for excellent researchers that fall between the “early-career” and “advanced” labels. However, some scientists fear this is a step towards watering down the ERC’s successful programmes.

The ERC has also been plagued by governance woes. The institution became independent from the European Commission in 2009, the same year an external review of the programme recommended merging the institution’s general secretary and director roles. But recruitment for the new position, which began before the governance change was fully developed, was abandoned when senior ERC executives decided, rightly, to finish the job of restructuring before recruiting for a new role.

However, the process was  reported to the European Commission ombudsman by one of the candidates, and the ERC found that it had some serious explaining to do. The creation of the position was postponed, and Donald Dingwell, a volcanologist, is now filling the secretary general role until January 2014, when the ERC’s restructuring process should be completed.

Nevertheless, the proposed funding increase for the ERC is a sign of trust by the Commission, and a reward for a job well done. Over the past years the ERC has carved out a role for itself from what some viewed as a second class funding agency that financed those too bad for national money to a world-class, top-of-the-range institution that is overwhelmed with applications every time it opens a new call.

Researchers across Europe will be welcoming the proposal to grow and boost an agency that has changed the lives and careers of so many. One can only wish it the support of member states and Parliament, and the utmost success for the future.

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