ERC: an idea whose time has come[ 2007-02-28 ]
It is fair to say that it is highly unusual to attend a research conference and to not hear any complaints at all about research policy or priorities. But this is precisely what happened when the European Research Council (ERC) was launched officially on 27 February.
The initiative attained backing at the highest level, with German Chancellor and current President of the European Council Angela Merkel giving the ERC her endorsement, along with EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik and MEPs attending the launch event in Berlin. But crucially, the ERC was also welcomed unanimously by those from the scientific community in attendance.
Various speakers talked of 'an idea whose time has come', 'a European factory of ideas', 'a champions' league', 'a great day for Europe and a great day for science', and the beginning of a 'snowball effect'.
Ms Merkel referred to the ERC as a milestone. She said that it will allow Europe to grow, and named three aspects that will be the key to the ERC's success in her mind: excellence, international involvement, and research freedom. She spoke of her pride in seeing the ERC set in motion during the German Presidency of the EU, and said that she likes to think that Germany's experiences have helped to get it onto the starting blocks.
The concepts of 'excellence' and 'independence' were mentioned time and time again during the launch conference. The German Chancellor, speaking from her own experience as a researcher, acknowledged that many factors come into play during the drafting of a research proposal, but appealed for excellence to remain the sole criterion for funding. She pledged to ensure that this remains the case during the German EU Council Presidency, but petitioned Mr Potocnik to take up the role of 'protective patron' of excellence after the Presidency has come to an end.
For his part, the Commissioner said that he had rarely been involved in such a consensual decision, and commended the speed with which the ERC had been created.
The ERC is a need and not a desire, he said, referring to both the increased competition that Europe faces from emerging economies, and the global challenges affecting all countries.
But the launch of the ERC is just the start of things to come, according to the Commissioner. He expects the ERC to lead to more research, more competition, more investment and better infrastructure. He also foresees improved peer review and the setting of new benchmarks. 'Today is the first push of the snowball,' said Mr Potocnik, speaking of the ERC's 'snowball effect'.
German MEP and chair of the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE), Angelika Niebler, sees a role for the ERC in creating a genuine 'European research community'. The Parliament pushed for autonomy and excellence, and is happy with what it got. She reminded the Commission officials present that this autonomy must be maintained, and Mr Potocnik was happy to give his reassurance.
So the politicians are happy, but what about the scientists? From the start the calls for a European Research Council came from the scientific community. According to the head of the ERC's Scientific Council, Fotis Kafatos, the community surprised itself with its unanimity on the desire for such a body.
Angelos Michaelides was a 2005 winner of the European Union Young Investigator Award (EURYI). He told the conference how the award had enabled him to slow down and tackle scientific problems properly and take on challenging projects. Normally young scientists such as himself are forced to work on short-term contracts.
Until the ERC's Starting Grants were launched, EURYI was the only award for less experienced scientists. The EURYI awards tried to address mobility, but in practice it was not easy to move institutions. Dr Michaelides is convinced that the ERC will enhance researcher mobility in Europe.
The ERC's ability to cope with high-risk projects was one of the main attractions of the ERC for Maciej Zylicz, President of the Foundation for Polish Science. National research councils, with their lower budgets, are unable to take such risks.
Professor Zylicz also spoke of a need to speed up the career advancement of young scientists, and told the conference that individual countries will learn from the ERC how to do this.
President of the Czech Science Foundation Josef Syka told CORDIS News of his bewilderment over talk of the ERC launch being a 'miracle'. 'This is no miracle but a necessary development. Otherwise European science will die out,' he said.
Professor Syka explained that since the EU began to fund science, there has been a focus on innovation and applied research. 'Now they [EU policy makers] realise that there must be something at the beginning. You cannot have applied research if you do not have science to apply.'
Gábor Makara, President of the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund, cited Darwin's survival of the fittest philosophy. 'If Europe wants to survive, it must get fit and compete with the US and Japan. They invest far more in basic research,' he told CORDIS News. He had some criticisms of the current research environment in the EU, but was hopeful that the ERC would instigate positive changes. 'Looking from the outside [prior to Hungary's accession to the EU] with the eyes of a scientists, it's not a very clever organisation. Scientists are valuable and sensitive and will produce results when a good environment is created for them. Brussels didn't know how to create science, but it's learning,' he said.
Sir David King bridges the divide between science and politics, being the chief scientific advisor to the UK Government. When the idea of the ERC was first mooted, the UK Government was sceptical. 'They thought that it could be yet another bureaucratic nightmare produced by Europe,' he joked. But when it became clear that the ERC would fund solely on the basis of excellence, the Government changed its position.
Those that have received funding from the ERC will be regarded as the crème de la crème. The ERC will sit at the pinnacle and haul research in the rest of Europe upwards, he said. The EU needs to be fit to face the 21st Century, and its challenges such as increased economic competition, population growth, the Earth's depleting resources and global warming. The ERC will go part way towards meeting these challenges.
Sir David was not alone in looking to the future. Mr Potocnik allowed himself to jump forward in time to 2013, the final year of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and to imagine how the ERC will then look: 'The ERC is well established and respected in Europe and around the world. Discussions on the next financial perspectives have ended, and the Heads of State and Government have agreed to more than double the ERC's budget. The decision was consensual and logical. The ERC is well accepted by scientists, and its administration is efficient. The corridors in the Madou Tower [where the ERC's secretariat is based] are vibrant and buzzing, and people are smiling.'
At the moment this vision may be no more than a dream, but as the Commissioner himself said, 'Only if we dare to dream about the future will we be able to change today.'
For more information about the ERC, please visit:
Text: 2007-03-CordisFocusItem-Cover page-Lead
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News attendance at ERC launch
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News attendance at ERC launch
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Scientific Research