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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Innovation in Europe—Does the ERC hold the key?

Innovation in Europe—Does the ERC hold the key?

Finance Blogger: Anthony Harrington Anthony Harrington

The present and future struggle to be at the forefront of global manufacturing is all about cornering the market for talent and intellectual property, according to Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, the UK’s largest manufacturing company. “This is why the Chinese are trying to build education institutions to rival Oxford and Harvard. And why India and China are working to keep more of their top graduates at home instead of seeing them migrate to the West,” he told delegates at the Foundation for Science and Technology recently.

In this context it is hard to overstate the importance being attached across Europe to the new European Research Council (ERC). In an excellent article in the February 2010 issue of The Scientist, entitled “Fork in the road,” Colin Macilwain points out that despite only opening its doors in 2007, the ERC is already disposing of a massive budget of close to €1 billion. Next year the ERC’s budget will top the 1 billion mark. To put that in context, the prestigious and hugely influential US National Science Foundation, launched in 1951, took 32 years to achieve a budget of $1 billion to dispense in grants.

The great thing about the ERC right now, and the reason it is receiving massive acclaim from the European science community, is that its funding is perceived to be given purely on merit, not on the basis of the usual EC fudge of “proportionality,” with x amount having to go to each country. Given this, Macilwain points out, each grant the ERC makes is seen as a hugely prestigious stamp of approval for that particular piece or field of research. While some of this research will never be commercialized, much of it will be, and some of it sooner rather than later. This of itself acts as a powerful motor for enterprise and will do much to keep Europe at the bleeding edge of materials science, engineering, electronics, and so on.

However, the point of Macilwain’s piece is that the ERC is coming up to a critical point in its history. He quotes John Wood, head of engineering at Imperial College London and chair of the European Research Advisory Board, which advises the Commission on science policy:

“The big issue is how much freedom the ERC will have. The EC rules that grip the ERC, including hiring restrictions, stringent audit demands and other form-filling requirements, could stifle its ability to operate as a top-notch research agency after its initial phase.”

The fear, Macilwain says, is that the ERC will lose its initial focus on scientific excellence and, like other EU programmes before it, “will fall victim to excessive bureaucracy and political demands” (his words).

The ERC has the potential to evolve into a “titan of research excellence, dwarfing other European science agencies and offering support comparable to that provided by the NSF on the other side of the Atlantic,” he says.

Already Macilwain has found mounting evidence of stifling bureaucracy in a thousand petty instances. The problem, as always, is devising a structure where public money is invested in an accountable way, without the audit process becoming so intrusive that it strangles the thing it is auditing. Time will tell if the EC manages to get sufficiently out of the way of the ERC to allow it to do its job. If it does, the benefits to European industry could be absolutely enormous.

Further reading on research and intellectual property

Tags: bureaucracy , EU , European Research Council , funding , innovation
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