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Following the sudden departure of the ERC’s president Mauro Ferrari in April and a debate it caused, several high profiled actors within the European scientific community are now asking for improvements in the selection process for his replacement.
Antoine Petit, president of The French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) stated how “Everybody can see that the process was flawed” since Ferrari had an outstanding CV but, as it turned out, was not the appropriate person for the position.
The ERC’s scientific autonomy is ensured by its 22-seat Scientific Council, with a president as chair and is responsible for setting the institution’s strategy. The Council, made up of eminent researchers, also recruits and selects the president.
It appears that the process by which Ferrari came to the position was different in previous appointments. It remains the same that a formal selection committee was appointed to come up with three short listed candidates. However the committee has now only been able to consider candidates who had formally applied for the job rather than going through a round of asking interested organisations to nominate candidates as it was the case before. Therefore the pool included 50 candidates, fewer than in the past selection procedures. Brexit also meant that British candidates were not considered for political reasons.
Contrary to previous years, the Scientific Council was also not consulted early about the candidates, according to Commission’s constraint, so the formal meeting of the three finalists went awry with two of them not being endorsed, leaving Ferrari as the sole candidate. That were left with only two options: to appoint him or to start the entire process of selection from scratch as a new European Commission was taking office. Few months and one resignation later, they will have to start the entire process from scratch.
Six of Europe’s top research chiefs made a declaration reaffirming their unconditional support to the ERC but stated that the core values of the ERC need to be preserved as its mission by efficacy. The declaration states their wish for an appropriate and transparent procedure to choose Ferrari’s successor. They insist that, considering the current urgency, the nomination procedure will need to be efficient and effective, giving more importance to the opinion of the Scientific Council. This seems to be an important push to change the process by involving the Scientific Council at an earlier stage, ensuring good relations between the president and the Council as its role is not to take the decisions which are taken by the Scientific Council (which was a point of tension during Ferrari’s brief mandate).
According to Helga Nowotny, Bourguignon’s predecessor as ERC president, the next selection committee should include a non-voting Council member to allow for the whole Council to be kept informed about the interview and selection process before the vote.
She also advocates for a more transparent procedure, including publishing the phases of selection and contract terms. Finally, she suggests that the initial pool of candidates should be bigger, allowing more than 400 EU research organisations to suggest names rather than having applicant-only system. More consultation about the choice between the Scientific Council and the European Commission be made to avoid surprises in the final list of candidates.