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A high-ranking EU civil servant leading the administrative wing of the European Research Council (ERC) announced his early retirement to staff on Monday, citing policy disputes.

In blunt email to staff, Pablo Amor, the funder’s top civil servant, says: ‘Things were not quite moving in the direction I wanted’

In the span of four paragraphs via email, Pablo Amor, director of the ERC Executive Agency, outlined some misgivings he has about the direction of the well-regarded basic research funder – and said he could no longer serve, and will be retiring on August 1, a year earlier than planned.

Amor’s unexpected departure follows months of mounting tension between the agency and the Commission administration that oversees it – over a range of issues including reporting lines, IT systems and other management details that ERC supporters fear could limit the agency’s flexibility. Commission officials immediately denied any changes are planned that could hurt the ERC.

In his email, Amor wrote: “I've decided that it was simply time to go. If you're wondering why... you haven't been paying attention. From controversial common support systems to a few decisions not going exactly our way I just felt that things were not quite moving in the direction I wanted. As Director, I am accountable.”

Jean-Eric Paquet, the Director-General of Research and Innovation, which oversees the ERC, praised Amor at a Science|Business conference on Tuesday. While confirming reports that he is planning a major re-organisation of the research directorate, he denied that any of the changes would hurt the funder. “The way [the ERC] is running is not impacted by the reorganisation,” Paquet said. 

The ERC consists of a governing Scientific Council of 22 members, which sets the scientific direction of the ERC, while an executive agency of some 400 staff controlled by the Commission runs day-to-day grant administration. Both are based in Brussels.

Amor’s team organises calls for proposals and coordinates administrative support for funded research projects. It helps organise and moderate panel meetings of independent reviewers and follow up with principal investigators on the progress of their research.

Tug-of-war

The agency is supervised by Paquet’s department, which is the Commission’s fifth-biggest, and oversees its third-largest budget: The €77 billion Horizon 2020, or Framework, programme. The Commission last year proposed a budget rise for the programme to €94.1 billion for 2021-2027, with a new set of policy goals.

A shake-up of the directorate, which will take effect in the next few months, will make it “more agile”, Paquet said. It reorganises 1,300 staff into new sectors, and revises the reporting lines between the staff and Paquet. The aim is to “increase synergies” with other Commission directorates.

However, the exercise coincides with a long-running tug-of-war between the Commission and funder about the flexibility the ERC has to operate.

A key part of ERC’s success, its supporters say, has been its unique legal structure that gives the governing Scientific Council greater autonomy than the norm for Brussels executive agencies – and this has appeared to many, at various times over the past decade, as under threat.

The ERC has always argued as a blue-skies funder it is deserving of a special place in the Commission and, indeed, the agency has been allowed in some instances to depart (or “derogate” in EU language) from the wider body of Commission rules.

Paquet, who was previously deputy secretary general of the Commission, came into the RTD job in late February 2018 – and from the start made one of his goals making the DG play nicely with other parts of the EU executive.

But a recent incident, involving an IT glitch, is being held up as an example of the pitfalls of greater harmonisation with the overall Commission administration. A source of frustration for ERC administrators lately is the functionality of the Commission’s internal IT system. A bug in the system meant that, for a period of a few months, experts hired to evaluate ERC projects could not be paid (previously, the ERC ran its own computer system).

Any effort to apply further “common support systems”, as Amor referred to them in his email, are therefore viewed in the ERC with some caution.

Recent history of tension

Last year, in the run up to the Commission’s announcement of its next long-term budget proposal for 2021-2027, a document supporting the ERC’s legal status was called into question by lawyers in the agency’s central administration, raising the possibility of it being made more like other EU agencies. For the ERC’s Scientific Council, that was an alarming prospect – and at a meeting last year they raised questions about it with Paquet. His response: Don’t worry, it will be fixed.

The issue has also resonated in the broader scientific community. Last year in a paper, the Royal Society of Edinburgh said the ERC should get “full decision-making autonomy”. The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, which represents academies of sciences and learned societies from over 40 countries, has also argued the ERC should be able to appoint its own executive agency, reporting directly to the scientific council, and without the involvement of the Commission. ERC autonomy “has been at times undermined or at least made difficult” by the current management set-up, the group said in a statement published in 2017. 

Surprise exit

ERC observers expressed surprise at Amor’s departure, which creates some uncertainty around the funder at a time of change. Amor will leave before the planned exit of Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the scientific council, whose tenure expires on 1 January, 2020. Bourguignon’s successor will be announced in the coming months.

While Bourguignon, a French mathematician, is the public face of the funder, leading the agency to a 60 per cent increase in funding, to €13 billion, since his tenure began in 2014, Amor is the one quietly pulling the levers in the background.

At the Science|Business conference, Paquet expressed magnanimity at Amor’s email. “I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary work by Pablo Amor and the development of an absolutely remarkable institution, the greatest EU success of the last 10 years,” said Paquet.

“The ERC tells the world that the best science is in Europe. It is an extraordinary achievement, and Amor has been essential in [that]. The next step for me will be to find someone else up to his level,” Paquet said.

His Mount Everest

In his message, Amor said he loved the ERC, which accounts for roughly 1 per cent of overall spending on research in Europe per year.

“And I'm terribly proud of what we've created. I'm OK with having somewhat failed at this part of the journey. If the [agency] was like reaching Mount Everest, it would be like I made it all the way except for the last fifty meters. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the agency this far with all of you.”

His parting advice for the ERC: let the scientists take the lead.

“If there's one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the scientific community. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what's best for our great Principal Investigators. This upcoming leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable service to our great scientific community - don't waste the opportunity,” he said.

When contacted for further comment, Amor replied: “I am just reaching retirement age and decided to execute therefore that option. Nothing else to add or say.”

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