Positive assessment given by independent review panel led by Sir David King of the JRC
In the first in a series of three interviews around the release of an independent evaluation of work carried out by the Joint Research Centre with recommendations for the future, Evaluation Panel Chairman and former UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King gives his account.
How the Joint Research Centre proposes to take on board the Panel's findings is dealt with in a second interview with Director General Roland Schenkel.
The larger implications for the European Commission and pan-European policy-making are being tackled in a third and final interview with Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik.
SIR DAVID KING, CHAIRMAN OF THE EVALUATION PANEL
Sir David, what is the context behind the evaluation of the Joint Research Centre and what did you learn as its Chairman?
Like all research bodies interested in benchmarking performance, the Joint Research Centre carries out an independent review under each European Commission Framework Programme for Research. This means that every four to five years a panel of international experts comes together with a specific brief to report on progress made since the last assessment, to comment on the value-added of the JRC in the bigger picture of pan-European research, and to make recommendations on future challenges the JRC might face. It was an honour for me to chair the recent Evaluation Panel and a privilege to work with fourteen such distinguished and committed colleagues.
It became evident during the Panel's work that the JRC today is not only instrumental in supporting the policy development of the European Commission, but also in responding to crisis situations threatening the security of European citizens. The JRC has undergone a major transformation over the last ten years, consolidating its position as an indispensable source of knowledge and expertise in support of the EU's political agenda.
To what extent were the objectives of the last assessment achieved, the 2003 David Fisk Report?
The Fisk Report spelled out eleven broad, horizontal recommendations and a further set of eleven specific thematic recommendations. Without getting into too much detail, it suffices to say that the JRC accepted and addressed all of them quite successfully.
Recommendations on, for example, restructuring the Ispra site in Italy and modernising global IT infrastructure are by nature long-term endeavours. Expert help was sought and the changes underway are on track for a successful completion in the near future.
Independently of the Fisk Report in 2003, the JRC has shown a capacity to set priorities by reorienting small parts of its work and putting to bed certain activities that have become less relevant.
The Panel also observed that the JRC enhanced the training of European researchers, that it has greatly assisted the new Member States with the transfer of the total body of EU legislation and that it delivers well-respected international services.
If you were to single out one development that has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for these successes what would that be?
Beyond doubt, the introduction of a clear and unambiguous customer-orientated mission statement in 1998 has given the JRC the necessary focus and internal control on the mission alignment of its work.
At the same time the JRC has experienced a major expansion in customer requests, dealing with issues of prime concern to the citizen such as health, security, energy and environment. Its role as a reference centre for all of Europe has been greatly reinforced.
This is part of a general trend we are seeing across the world where the role of scientific advice as part of the policy-making cycle is expanding.
What in the Panel's view is the next step change to be made?
For this next step change the JRC needs a fully-fledged corporate strategy with a vision describing where the JRC should be in five years time. It will also have an eye on where the JRC could be in 25 years from now, in terms of its assets, competences and priorities.
The Evaluation Panel felt that this vision might distinguish at least three distinct types of activity. The largest element will remain policy-support to a few big and several small and more irregular customers largely within the Commission, but increasingly extended to the Parliament and Council. The second element is the JRC's EURATOM commitment via a stable EURATOM Framework Programme. Thirdly, the JRC's expertise and work on reference materials and measurements will remain a constant.
What is the fundamental difference between how the Panel foresees today's JRC and the one you would like to see in five years' time?
Policy-making by its very nature is the art of finding solutions among potentially competing interests. Impartial scientific advice is essential to good policy-making. It is important that the JRC continues to strengthen its capacity to deliver robust science for policy-making without compromising scientific vitality or integrity.
In saying that, the JRC has the standing, knowledge-base and the human resources to play a more proactive policy advice role. The Panel believes that the JRC should, in a timely manner, draw the attention of policy-makers to upcoming issues and indeed to become more involved in the early, agenda-setting part of the policy-making process.
What is the significance of this new departure for the Commission as a whole?
In the Panel's view, the Commission would benefit from receiving proactive unbiased scientific advice from the JRC, identifying future problems, opportunities and needs for our societies, picking up signals from the scientific community and using horizon scanning procedures based on the current state of knowledge from science, technology and the social sciences.
ROLAND SCHENKEL, DIRECTOR GENERAL, JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE
Sir David King has given a positive assessment of the direction in which the JRC is moving. What do you take away as the most important messages?
The conclusions and recommendations of the King evaluation are very much in line with the thinking behind the senior management's push in recent years for a more strategic approach to our ongoing development. In that sense, we share the same vision on issues such as promoting a greater anticipatory reflex inside the JRC on what client needs might be around the corner, promoting greater integration of resources within the JRC and between units and institutes, and finally promoting a JRC-specific approach within Commission rules to recruitment. We simply must ensure that we have the right pool of talent to perform the growing range of specialised work we are increasingly called upon to provide.
What you are saying, in essence, is that you are only as good as your people and that a successful organisation needs to constantly modernise?
Exactly. Given the vital role that human resources play in the JRC's ability to achieve its mission, greater strategic importance must be given to the recruitment of the best possible candidates and to their continued career development once recruited. We are proposing that S&T candidates take an S&T exam first and then a general knowledge exam. Strategic resource management must reach beyond the recruitment phase of the new staff members and follow them throughout their careers as permanent members of staff or during their stay as a member of the visiting staff.
Does the same logic apply to adapting hiring procedures and career management schemes for shorter-term appointments?
Yes. We also need the flexibility to recruit top talent on six-year temporary contracts for which the selection is made by the JRC. This would entail an increased use and selection of temporary staff such as PhD, post-docs and visiting scientists.
PhD students have a revitalising effect on the JRC. We provide a training ground for recent graduates in areas where there are demands for skills in Europe not met elsewhere such as on nuclear research and reference materials. The opportunities we can offer are very good. Some parts of our research programme are critically dependent on the work and availability of graduate students.
You rightly point out the Panel highlights modernising the JRC as key in the constant drive towards greater efficiency and effectiveness. What does this mean for you in practice?
The JRC has developed and will continue to prioritise a structured approach towards constantly modernising within its means. We are continually updating equipment and building new, often unique, research facilities requested by our customers.
We also try to pioneer new, cost-effective ways of organising our work. This helps us to optimise research results for customers through fostering integration and knowledge-sharing between various teams of scientists. Much of our actual work occurs in horizontal actions and programmes put together in a flexible way, backed by adequate financial resources according to customer needs. For example, our work related to Africa now involves 16 teams across three different institutes. This depth of expertise allows us to look at any one given topic from new and often unexpected angles.
What are the next steps for the JRC in terms of ongoing benchmarking of the King Report's recommendations?
The recent evaluation gave us a high-level assessment of the JRC. We can't afford to stand still. Together with all stakeholders and staff, we have already started the process to develop by the end of 2009 a new vision and strategy. We will continue to push for more integration inside the JRC and continue our horizon-scanning exercise with our customers. This latter element will also help us to become more pro-active in our policy advice. And last but not least, we have started taking the necessary steps to act on the recommendations made regarding staff management.
In the medium-term, we are eager to take this evaluation a step deeper and to conduct an assessment of the detailed policy support we are providing and the quality of our scientific work. This involves closer scrutiny of JRC products and services and of our real interactions with customers and stakeholders.
More specialised evaluations will provide better feedback, helping us to analyse key competence areas and to benchmark their success in research and policy support for the EU. They will also help us to assess internal administrative and reporting processes. For example, validating the quality assurance framework for scientific and technical documents and the implementation of the fully-fledged corporate strategy the King Report calls for.
JANEZ POTOCNIK, EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER FOR RESEARCH
Sir David King speaks positively of today's Joint Research Centre and its senior management appears to have a clear vision of where to go next, what is your assessment?
The Panel's independent assessment reinforced my view that the JRC is providing an invaluable and often unique service not only to the Commission's policy Directorate-Generals but also to EU member states, often in niche scientific areas where this level of hands-on support and competence might not otherwise be available.
For me it is clear that the Joint Research Centre is performing well and has a bright future providing indispensable S&T support to European Commission policy-making. One only has to look at the growth of its activities in response to customer demand, particularly in areas such as environment, energy and food safety.
As the Commissioner responsible for two Directorate-Generals and the third largest Commission budget, what is the relevance of the JRC to you in your daily work?
With seven research institutes and five sites in five member states, the JRC has a pan-European reach and as intrinsically a network organisation, benefits from being clustered with other research actors across Europe. It thus has an important role to play in promoting the European Research Area. I can call on its expertise for the research facts I often need to help me arrive at a position on important policy files.
The JRC is not a policy-making Directorate-General itself, but supports other Commission DGs. This means that all Commissioners and their Services are able to call upon independent, in-house scientific expertise which is vitally important to the decisions they then take. This way, we are able to provide real support to colleagues and as the evaluation pointed out, their satisfaction levels are high.
Finally, in my role as an ambassador of the European Research Area, promoting greater structuring of European research projects via the Framework Programme, the JRC is able to help keep my finger on the pulse of what might be coming next, while providing me with home-grown examples of success stories where the Commission really is making a difference to the quality of the food we eat, the air we breath, the products we use and the safety of the transport networks we use.
The evaluation highlighted the JRC's increasing interaction with other EU Institutions and proactive approach to engaging with research actors in the Member States. How do you see this developing?
It's true that the JRC is becoming better known. I'm very encouraged when I see the European Parliament's Interface Working Group with the JRC commissioning scientific reports on important issues such as biometrics or the health effect of GMOs. Similarly, it's often overlooked that it is the JRC's Enlargement and Integration Action that helps pave the way for EU membership by working hand-in-glove with the scientific establishments and authorities of candidate countries in closing chapters and taking up the body of European law. The JRC is clearly appreciated in the 12 new Member States and this gives a good indication of the importance of its work. I see this welcome trend continuing.
The King evaluation gives the JRC the confidence to be even more proactive in seeking out potential partners in the future. This internal drive and push from the JRC is also matched by a greater external pull. The nature of European Commission policy-making today requires built-in knowledge of, and planning for, what is coming next. Here again the JRC is in pole position to offer sound advice and underscore its added-value.
Roland Schenkel laid particular emphasis on attracting, motivating, training and retaining the right pool of talent. What hurdles do you face?
Staff regulations for officials of the European Communities and conditions of employment for non permanent staff do not always match the real needs of a scientific organisation like the JRC. For example, competitions for staff with an S&T profile need to give the highest priority to scientific competence. Currently, the system places a lot of emphasis on general administrative knowledge which means that good scientists might be discouraged from entering or can fail outright at the first step. We are proposing that S&T candidates take an S&T exam first and then a general knowledge exam.
Despite these challenges, the dedication, professionalism and commitment to delivering robust science for policy-making demonstrated year-on-year by JRC staff across all institutes has to be recognised. Whenever I visit an institute or am involved in an external event with JRC staff, when I think of the top-level briefings I get or the general support that is provided to me, my Cabinet or colleagues, the JRC's passion to help make the difference comes across. This positive evaluation made by Sir David King and his independent Panel is a resounding endorsement of all JRC staff. Clearly this is their success.