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ERC – possible future perspectives

In the context of ongoing reflections about the next generation of EU research and development programmes (with the outlining of a possible Horizon 2020 programme), new ideas are circulating with regard to the European Research Council (ERC). Specifically, an independent task force established by the European Commission at the end of last year has published this summer its conclusions on the possible future of the ERC. The task force was to examine and propose ways in which the potential of the ERC could be maximised by the end of this decade.

The ERC was created in 2007 to raise scientific and research standards across Europe and fund ‘frontier research’ not bound to any specific thematic areas or subjects. The body is currently financed by the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), more specifically under the ‘Ideas’ Specific Programme. The ERC is essentially the sum of two parts - the Scientific Council of ERC and the ERC Executive Agency. In theory, the ERC Executive Agency (created in 2009) is only the implementation arm of the Scientific Council, which is to outline scientific policy and make sure the ERC acts in the true interest of the scientific community. Nevertheless, in practice, the Executive Agency is also subordinate to the European Commission. The two bodies are therefore subject to a complex and cumbersome set of EU rules, especially as regards financial regulations, the application of which has long been criticised as undermining the policy-setting role of the Scientific Council, as well as the efficiency and the independence of the ERC as a whole.

It comes as no surprise, thus, that the task force recommends as one of the key changes for the future the clearer and broader delegation of scientific as well as administrative responsibilities to the Scientific Council and the ERC Executive Agency, and less direct intervention from the European Commission. Other key recommendations are

  • the creation from 2014 of a quasi-full time role for the President of ERC, who would be based in Brussels (this would be both a strengthening and a cost-saving measure); 
  • the creation of a private ERC Foundation, with  the name “Friends of the ERC”, to manage philanthropic donations to ERC; and 
  • the formalisation of existing co-ordination between the leadership of the Scientific Council and the top management of the Executive Agency.

Some recommendations could (if deemed desirable) be immediately implemented by the Commission; others require broader changes, necessitating the approval of the European Parliament (EP) and the Council of Ministers (CoM). The suggested reforms needing the ‘green light’ from the EP and CoM could ultimately be absorbed in the Commission proposal for the Horizon 2020 programme.