One ERC…or 25?

Now that I have returned from my visit last month to CHEPS in the Netherlands and the University of Aveiro in Portugal, I’ll try to post more regularly again. That said…let’s start with a short item in last weeks Economist:

“Historically, the European Union has not bothered with funding much basic scientific research. Such activities have mainly remained the preserve of national governments, not least because giving scientists free rein can lead to discoveries that not only make money but ultimately enhance military might. That attitude is now changing. The European Commission proposes to establish a European Research Council (ERC) that would spend a maximum of euro12 billion ($14 billion) over seven years on “blue skies” research. While the plans are being generally welcomed by Europe’s member states, their details are problematic.”

In many respects, I’m a supporter of the creation of a European Research Council. Expanding the opportunities for researchers to apply for research funding will create a healthy form of competition, especially for those in the smaller countries of the EU. Whether I am a believer of this European version of the NSF (the US National Science Foundation)? …I’m not so sure. Europe is simply not a federation of states like the US. It is a grouping of sovereign nation states with some common goals and a lot of different peculiarities. And this is exactly what should not be taken into account when deciding upon the way in which the ERC will be legally organised. Basically the choice is between an independent organisation that allocates funding on the basis of merit and an organisation that allocates funding on the basis of national quota. It should be like the former option, but it will probably be more like the latter… This time I agree with the Economist:

“If both are genuine in their support for the ERC and Europe’s aim of becoming more competitive, then they must find a way of keeping the ERC free from political interference. Europe would benefit from a competition for its best researchers which rewards scientific excellence. A quasi-competition that recognises how many votes each member state is allotted would be pointless.”

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