The ERC should adopt an award-based funding procedure

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The ERC should adopt an award-based funding procedure

The stated mission of the European Research Council (ERC) is to 'encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-initiated frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of scientific excellence'. Its main funding schemes, the Starting Grants and the Advanced Grants, have proven remarkably attractive and competitive. But a major stumbling block for grantees lies in the administrative hurdles that come with the grants: for several recent grantees, budgetary justifications and reporting duties have turned into a nightmare. During an ERC-organized meeting at CNRS in Paris in December 2012 and in ensuing email exchanges, considerable discontent was voiced by recent grantees. We shall not attempt to lay the blame for this state of affairs, which may stem from overly complex ERC rules and/or an inability of the host institution to deal with these rules. But whatever its cause, the result is heart-wrenching: while the ERC has demonstrated great scientific leadership in fostering a powerful 'bottom up, quality-only' funding philosophy, its positive contribution to European research is in part squandered due to excessive bureaucratic constraints. 

The procedures can and should be radically simplified. Euryi (= 'European Young Investigator Award'), a program administered by the European Science Foundation, was a direct ancestor of the ERC Starting Grants, and had the same 'bottom up, quality only' philosophy; furthermore, funding was based on research projects (as well as a detailed budgets) subject to very strict peer-review. But there was one major difference: formally, the Euryi program provided 'awards', controlled by the PI and the host institution, rather than 'grants' subject to strict reporting obligations. As a result, administrative hurdles were reduced to a strict minimum for the PI, for the host institution, and for the ESF. Some host institutions that have had the greatest difficulties administering ERC grants proved remarkably bureaucracy-free in the case of Euryi awards – which suggests that the bureaucratic hurdles encountered in recent ERC grants can be circumvented with a different funding procedure. 

Which funding scheme is better? Due to the sheer organizational cost of the current ERC system (notably, but not only, in terms of PI time), a Euryi-style, award-based system would seem to be far preferable. Now Euryi awards were not control-free: as mentioned, they were as project-based and thus forward-looking as ERC grant projects; furthermore, they were subject to whatever controls the host institution applied to normal research-related funding – in no way could ESF funds be used for anything but research. But these awards proved far more flexible, and far less costly to administer, than ERC grants. 

We certainly do not wish to imply that the European taxpayer should fund research without expecting results. But it is both erroneous and counterproductive to think that research projects can or should be defined once and for all for an entire grant period (often 5 years), and then completed and justified as initially expected. For by its very nature, research attempts to extend the frontiers of human knowledge; what will be found beyond these frontiers is by definition unknown, and for this reason researchers who aren't able to constantly refine or even redefine their research programs should probably be in another business. In fact, even in grant-based funding schemes – at least in fundamental research – most scientists understand that grantees must be given great flexibility to pursue the best research they can. Referees of scientific projects are usually keenly aware of the fact that they primarily assess a researcher's potential to produce important work, whether or not it ends up following the letter of the proposal. This is all the more important since applicants tend to write into projects results that they already obtained in a preliminary fashion – for the obvious reason that this gives them greater credibility in arguing for their project. It would be disastrous if successful applicants spent an entire grant period extending old research without developing new and potentially unexpected research directions. Similarly, when a funding institution relies on scientist rather than administrators to make decisions on topical extensions of funded projects (relying on scientists is standard practice at the NSF), it is a safe bet that they will look favorably upon any reasonable extension that involves good research. In short: in well-functioning funding institutions in fundamental research, all the agents involved – be they referees, committee members or scientific officers – understand that the first and foremost requirement is to be doing good science. The European taxpayer should expect world-class research of ERC grantees – but casual scientific experience suggests that this is best achieved by not putting in place heavy administrative hurdles on successful applicants. 

While the ERC could attempt to emulate other institutions, such as the NSF, in simplifying reporting obligations, increasing flexibility in budget use, and putting scientists in charge of all major decisions, the complex interaction between the ERC and a diverse group of host institutions will make such a solution very complex to implement. By contrast, importing into the ERC the award-based scheme that was successfully tested by the ESF (Euryi) would provide a simple and radical solution to a long-standing bureaucratic problem. At the very least, the ERC should conduct a comparative study of Euryi awards and ERC Starting Grants, and keep the current system only if the Euryi program was proven to be less scientifically efficient, or to have lead to misuse of funds that cannot be easily corrected (we have not heard of a single such case). 

As some recent grantees have noted, the current situation is somewhat paradoxical. The ERC submits applicants to unparalleled levels of scientific scrutiny, with very strict and competitive selection procedures; after which successful applicants are asked to work within an administrative framework whose premise seems to be that their primary motive will be to misuse ERC funds. This is detrimental to the efficiency of European research, and also to its reputation. ERC procedures should now be radically simplified to improve the quality and attractiveness of European research.

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