The influential German sociologist Max Weber said that ‘regularization of charisma’ is common in organizations. It’s fashionable these days to compare science to business, and Steve Jobs and Apple come to mind as examples: the company’s image was formed based on the individual characteristics and achievements of its innovative, sharp and revolutionary leader, and so it survived Gone.
I will soon step down as President of the European Research Council (ERC), and my successor will be announced next week. But when it comes to ERC succession planning, the charisma comes not from a single individual, but from the leading scientists who acted as the driving force to reshape Europe’s entire research landscape.
There is also turnover in the Scientific Council that governs the ERC strategy. By the end of next year, its last two founding members will be gone. While this is part of the normal renewal process, it should not lead to a loss of institutional memory of the critical years since the founding of the ERC, including how it overcame many obstacles.
I am concerned for the future of ERC – but first, some history. According to management consultant Peter Drucker, every successful organization begins with a courageous decision. This applies to ERC. Seven years ago, the European Union (EU) made the courageous decision to set up an agency to fund frontier research based on a single criterion: scientific excellence.
It received a ‘Big Bang’ budget of €7.5 billion (US$10.3 billion). Most unusually, the establishment of the scientific strategy was delegated to an autonomous scientific council of 22 members, while implementation would be in the hands of a ‘dedicated implementation structure’, which is now the ERC executive agency.
ERC has been a huge success. The recognition of the fairness, transparency and reliability of its evaluation process has turned it into the gold standard for Europe. This high reputation has led to unprecedented competition among host institutions for the prestige of ERC grants.
This has probably contributed more than anything to energize the European research sector and increase its attractiveness to researchers from outside Europe. Most importantly, it has fueled the careers of young researchers, who are nearly two-thirds of the recipients of the more than 4,000 grants that the ERC has funded so far.
As this number increases, the number of people involved in the ERC evaluation increases from 900 panel members in 2009-10 to about 2,000 in 2012-13. But the scientific community should not think that ERC activities have become a safe, predictable routine.
Here’s my concern. Neither the ERC nor the standards set by it should be taken lightly for scientific excellence. At stake is the continuing sense that ERC belongs to the scientific community, earned through the continued commitment and dedication of scientists as panel members, distance reviewers, creative critics and mentors. The founding generation legacy is an appraisal process of the highest quality, and must be maintained and protected at all costs.
Under Horizon 2020, the next round of EU funding for research and innovation, the ERC will have a significantly increased budget of more than €13 billion. It is a clear recognition by the European Commission of the leading part that the ERC hopes to play over the next seven years, injecting scientific excellence into other parts of Horizon 2020 and demonstrating the impact of frontier research.
This is good news. But the consequences of some of the changes under Horizon 2020 are less clear. The dual governance structure of ERC is both its unique strength and its greatest vulnerability.
The strength is the power of its Autonomous Scientific Council. The vulnerability is that the implementation of the Council’s decisions by the ERC executive agency is subject to general EU rules and regulations, not all of which are appropriate for the ERC.
After overcoming many initial difficulties, the Scientific Council has built a reliable relationship with its executive agency and a highly professional staff. Under the new management mode of Horizon 2020, there will be a massive outsourcing of activities to executive agencies; The ERC would become the executive agency one of many.
I can see that there is increasing pressure on administrators to follow a ‘one size fits all’ model based on the common denominator of executive agencies and their underlying logic of greater efficiency through streamlining. New key performance indicators, such as impact measurements, are being established, and some may contradict the ERC’s mission of simply funding excellence.
The European Commission will continue to oversee and control the executive agencies. The special nature of the ERC is enshrined in EU law.