European Research Body to Get New Head

The European Research Council (ERC) is about to get a new leader, although not in the form most people expected. The ERC, perhaps the most popular science program to come out of the European Union, funds more than 1000 individual researchers doing cutting-edge projects. It has more than €7 billion to spend between 2007 and 2013. Late last year, it announced a high-profile search for a “distinguished scientist” to head the ERC’s Brussels-based Executive Agency starting in 2011. Those plans have now been put on hold, the ERC announced this week. Instead, says Helga Nowotny, chair of the ERC’s Scientific Council, a new secretary-general has been chosen to replace Andreu Mas-Colell, who stepped down for personal reasons in September. The candidate is in contract negotiations with the European Commission, she says, and an announcement could come by the end of the year.

At the same time, the ERC announced that a new task force will explore the possibilities for an entirely new management scheme that would put the ERC on a more stable legal and organizational foundation. “The goal is to come up with several models for how a future ERC could look,” Nowotny says.

When the ERC was founded in 2007, it was set up as an Executive Agency within the European Commission. That was the most straightforward way to carve out a place for the ERC in the E.U.’s tangled rules and regulations. “It was a quick solution, which we had to take or there would have been no ERC,” Nowotny says.

But most observers agree that the arrangement is far from ideal. A review panel found in 2009 that the ERC’s management system was “obsolete” in the way it left nonscientist bureaucrats in charge of day-to-day operations, leading to constant low-level conflict and even “abusive” requirements of volunteer grant reviewers. Now, in the run-up to the E.U.’s next big funding program, the Framework Programme 8, the ERC has a window of opportunity to work out a new structure that fixes those problems, Nowotny says.

The new director was supposed to help bridge the gulf between the ERC’s scientific council, which sets the scientific agenda, and the Executive Agency, which manages day-to-day operations. The review noted that the scientific council’s liaison in Brussels, the secretary-general, had no formal power. In response, the European Commission agreed to hire a scientist with experience in both research and science management as the next head of the Executive Agency. The secretary-general post was to be eliminated.

But switching to a new leadership structure now would have been disruptive “and wouldn’t solve the real problem,” Nowotny says, so the Scientific Council decided to hire a new secretary-general after all. The new incumbent is aware that the post is “a position without executive power,” Nowotny says. “On the other hand, soft power can go a long way.”

The task force, chaired by Robert-Jan Smits, director general for research at the European Commission, should start work before the end of the year, Nowotny says, and should present its results by next summer.