Science in Charge: Scientist to Lead Europe's Research Flagship

A "distinguished scientist"—and for the first time not a civil servant—will become the next head of the European Research Council. ScienceInsider has learned that the European Commission will announce on Thursday that it has heeded the advice of an independent review panel that recommended putting a scientist in charge of the ERC, the E.U's funding agency for basic research. ERC has a €7.5 billion budget to spend on frontier research through 2013.

ScienceInsider has obtained a copy of the European Commission's official response to the review panel's report. In it, the Commission also promises to lighten the paperwork for peer reviewers—some of which the panel had called "completely abusive"—and to reimburse their expenses more promptly.

A key target in the panel's harshly worded review, published in July, was the managerial dichotomy at the ERC. A Scientific Council, made up of volunteers and chaired by Imperial College London biologist Fotis Kafatos, sets the ERC's scientific agenda. But day-to-day-management is in the hands of civil servants at the Executive Agency in Brussels, which is controlled by the European Commission. The two clash frequently.

The Scientific Council's liaison in Brussels,whose job is called "secretary-general," has few formal powers is seen by many as a lame duck.

Now, the Commission has agreed to make a scientist with administrative and managerial experience the next director of the Executive Agency. The post of secretary-general, currently filled by Spanish economist Andreu Mas-Colell can be scrapped once his terms ends in 2011, the Commission says.

Mas-Colell can't become director himself, because he's 65 years old; applicants for European Commission jobs can't be over 61. That restriction severely limits the candidate pool, says Helga Nowotny, vice-chair of the Scientific Council, because many scientists don't become managers until late in their careers.

The Commission's response is much vaguer on some other issues raised by the panel. For instance, the review advocated giving grantees a lump-sum, instead of a contract in which every euro has to be accounted for. The Commission seems sympathetic to the idea and promises to bring up the issue during the upcoming triennial review of the E.U.'s Financial Regulation. However, changing the rules will require action from the European Parliament and the Council as well, it notes.