EUA has supported strongly the creation of the European Research Council (ERC) as a major new component of FP7 providing a competitive funding mechanism to support basis research. EUA had long advocated such a mechanism on the European level. In its 2003 “Statement concerning the establishment of a European Research Council” EUA stressed the importance of the need for the independence of the new body, its substantial funding and its coverage of all fields of research while placing emphasis on the importance of the new mechanism for supporting excellence in research across Europe’s universities in both established research intensive universities and those with emerging new research teams.
EUA played a strategic role as a recognised key stakeholder in providing advice to the ERC Identification Committee on the profile, criteria for selection, and the nomination of prospective members to the ERC Scientific Council and in the consultations on the nature of the first two funding streams, “ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grants” and “ERC Advanced Investigator Grants”, on the peer review process and on the range and focus of disciplinary and interdisciplinary review panels. Since the establishment of the ERC in 2007, EUA has maintained a working dialogue with the ERC Scientific Council in order to ensure that the interests of university-based researchers and Europe’s universities as host institutions are taken fully into account. Both ERC President Professor Fotis Kafatos and ERC Vice-President Professor Helga Nowotny contributed to the 4th EUA Convention of Higher Education Institutions in Lisbon, Portugal in 2007, and Professor Kafatos gave the keynote opening speech at the launching of the EUA-Council for Doctoral Education in June 2008 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
EUA provided a response to the ERC Review Panel in May 2009 following a request from the Review Panel Chair for input from the main stakeholders – EUA Response to the ERC Review Panel. The Review Panel published its report on 23 July 2009 and its main recommendations moved in directions that were consistent with the views submitted by EUA. From July 2009, the ERC achieved administrative autonomy as an Executive Agency with a Director and 200 approximately staff. However, the ERC Executive Agency operates on the basis of powers delegated to it by the European Commission, which holds political responsibility for the implementation of FP7 of which ERC constitutes a part – the “Ideas” programme.
On 15 September 2009 in Brussels, the EU Swedish Presidency convened a “Mini-Seminar on the Mid-Term Review of the European Research Council’s Structure and Mechanisms” to which the EUA President, Professor Jean-Marc Rapp, was invited. In his speech at the Mini-Seminar and later in his presentation in the first plenary session of the European Research Area Conference: Working Together to Strengthen Research in Europe held 21-23 October 2009, the EUA President put forward the idea of the need for a third stream of ERC funding to support a European-wide competition for ERC Doctoral Awards (to be held outside the candidate’s country of origin). The ERA Conference had launched the European Research Area Board (ERAB) report “Preparing Europe for a New Renaissance: A Strategic View of the European Research Area”. The ERC “third stream” idea was put forward by EUA to address a key “milestone” of the ERAB Strategic Review recommendations (the achievement of a level of 20% of EU doctoral candidates working outside their home country by 2030).
The EUA Research Policy Working Group has given advice subsequently on a proposed initial design for a ERC third stream proposal which has been supported by the EUA Board and Council in consultation with the EUA Council for Doctoral Education Steering Committee. The proposed scheme would be a new direction for ERC whereby university doctoral/graduate schools (rather than individuals) would be invited to apply for an allocation of ERC Doctoral Awards which would be judged on the basis of the quality of their research and training environment. Those successful university doctoral schools would then advertise the ERC Doctoral Awards and recruit the candidates through a competition that would be announced on the websites of the successful universities. The selection of the candidates would therefore be undertaken at the university level within the framework of criteria and strategic guidelines for the scheme devised by the ERC Scientific Council.
A key focus of the third stream proposal is on making the essential case for ERC to have a strengthened role and budget beyond its present lifespan of FP7 by providing support to the innovative research environments of doctoral schools being created across Europe’s universities and to enhance their further internationalisation. The ERC third stream to support doctoral schools should be further elaborated in FP8 to provide a range of funding instruments, for example, “bridge-building” ERC grants to doctoral schools to support young researchers from the doctoral research stage to the first steps of a European/international research career.
EUA has put forward this proposal in its initial form for debate and consideration by the ERC and the European Commission . If it is judged to be worthy of further development, it will then be in the hands of the ERC Scientific Council and the European Commission. The proposal is judged by EUA to be timely because it is understood that the ERC Scientific Council are currently discussing possible new funding schemes of which support for doctoral schools as one option.