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Glowing report prompts new, more strategic focus in JRC

A new, independent review of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) describes the organisation as 'an indispensable source of knowledge and expertise in support of the political agenda of the EU' that also plays an instrumental role in 'responding to crisis situ...

A new, independent review of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) describes the organisation as 'an indispensable source of knowledge and expertise in support of the political agenda of the EU' that also plays an instrumental role in 'responding to crisis situations threatening the security of European citizens'. The evaluation of the JRC's work during the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) was carried out by 14 independent experts led by Sir David King, who until recently was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government. '[The JRC] successfully achieved the main goals set for its work under the Sixth Framework Programme through a clear customer orientation, robust policy support and underpinning research,' the report reads. Nevertheless, the panel highlights several issues where there is room for improvement and work has already begun in the JRC to address these. In an interview with CORDIS News, JRC Director General Roland Schenkel described himself as very pleased with the evaluation panel's praise. 'I am also extremely happy about the recommendations,' he added, 'because they are very much along the lines we were thinking anyway.' This new, glowing report reflects in large part the efforts made within the JRC to respond to the recommendations set out in the last evaluation, which was carried out in 2003. Laying out his approach to evaluations, Dr Schenkel said emphatically: 'If you make an external evaluation and you get recommendations, you need to have a clear idea of how to implement them.' Among other things, that earlier report spurred on improvements in the organisation's ICT (information and communications technologies) systems, smarter management procedures, and investments in infrastructure. One outstanding recommendation from the earlier report, which was picked up again by Sir King and his colleagues, concerns recruitment. 'We are a little bit stuck with the Commission's system to recruit officials in that a large number of good scientists fail the general admission test,' explained Dr Schenkel. As a consequence, the JRC struggles to recruit specialised, top-level researchers. The JRC has now been granted a compromise solution under which it will test candidates' scientific skills and knowledge in the first round of recruitment and make them sit a more general test at a later stage of the process. Meanwhile, Dr Schenkel has vowed to keep it on the agenda of all management meetings until the issue is resolved. 'This is a real concern. In order to deliver on our mission we need to have access to the best possible people, otherwise we will fail,' he stressed. One of the recommendations from the new report that will take up a good deal of Dr Schenkel's time over the coming months and years concerns a new vision for the JRC. During the past decade, his organisation has become increasingly customer driven. However, this has led to the JRC engaging in a multitude of areas, thereby losing focus. 'This we cannot do,' commented Dr Schenkel. 'This is why we had already planned to develop a strategy and clarify what are our core areas.' As well as setting out the JRC's priority areas, the strategy will also state what the organisation will not do, Dr Schenkel added. Dr Schenkel and his colleagues have already begun discussing their vision for the future and meetings with the other Directorates General of the Commission, as well as the JRC's many clients in the EU institutions and elsewhere, are planned. The Director General hopes to have the strategy ready by the end of 2009, although he admits that this may be a little optimistic. Asked where he sees his organisation in 10 years' time, Dr Schenkel is reluctant to offer his opinion; he is eager for his staff to contribute their own ideas before weighing in with his own. 'I want them to really brainstorm and come up with ideas to create ownership of the process,' he told CORDIS News. The evaluation also calls on the JRC to 'exercise a proactive policy advice function'. Dr Schenkel welcomes this recommendation, noting that the organisation has already started to work on this. He is particularly keen to ensure that all reports are published, even if their conclusions are not what the policy makers wanted to hear. 'I think it would help the Commission in the future if there is an organisation like the JRC that can put evidence-based facts on the table and also publish it. I think our customers and the Commission should understand that this creates a healthy culture,' he said. The policy maker can still make other decisions, justifying them on the basis of public concerns, for example, Dr Schenkel points out. However, if researchers believe that the scientific evidence points the other way, they should have the right to state this clearly. 'We need that for our credibility,' he explained. The evaluators are optimistic that their recommendations will help to strengthen the JRC's position further. 'For those of the panel who have followed the work of the JRC since the mid-1990s, the JRC has shown continuous improvement,' they write. 'The panel thinks that with the proposed arrangements the JRC will be able to take another significant step forward in making its services to the European Union better, more effective and more efficient.'

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