ERCIM - History, Overview and Outlook
by Eckart Bierdümpel
The increasing integration of Europe was the main driving force behind the foundation of ERCIM. In 1988, it became clear that action was necessary in view of the challenges and opportunities of the Single European Act. It was foreseen that development at governmental level would have a major impact on research management, strategies and structures in many fields of science. Thus, three national research institutions working in the fields of informatics and applied mathematics, CWI, GMD and INRIA, decided to unite forces in order to actively participate in and influence this process. They were convinced that, by combining their efforts and complementing each others fields of research, they would improve their ability to satisfy the demands of the changing environment while, at the same time, enhancing their contribution to the research community and to Europe as a whole. Therefore, on 13 April 1989, the boards of CWI, INRIA and GMD signed an agreement defining the aims of a co-operation for strengthening research and development in the fields of informatics, information technology and applied mathematics. This signalled the birth of ERCIM, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics.
ERCIMs policy of openness towards new members from other countries received a strong response and consequently the Consortium has grown considerably over the years (see Figure 1) In 1990 Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK, - today a part of CLRC joined ERCIM. In 1991 INESC from Portugal and CNR from Italy followed. 1992 SINTEF from Norway, FORTH from Greece and SICS from Sweden became new members. In 1993, AEDIMA from Spain and VTT from Finland joined, and in 1994 SZTAKI from Hungary and SARIT (at that time called SGFI) from Switzerland. In 1995, it was decided to call a momentary halt and to achieveconsolidation as ERCIM had been growing too fast. In fact, in 1996 ERCIM lost one member, the Spanish consortium AEDIMAwhich had consisted of too many affiliates and was consequently too loosely knit left ERCIM and was dissolved. On the other hand, in the same year, CRCIM from the Czech Republic and DANIT from Denmark were accepted by the Consortium. Due to domestic problems and a consequent restructuring, INESC left in 1998, while SRCIM joined as representative for Slovakia. Interest in joining ERCIM has been announced by Ireland and Austria and discussions are currently going on with representatives of research groups in Portugal and Spain. After the rapid increase in membership during the first years, the policy is now to accept new members only moderately (a maximum of 2 new members per year), in order to ensure a better integration.
ERCIM opted to constitute an EEIG (European Economic Interest Grouping), a legal institution promoted by the European Union. This was not an easy task as nobody had any experience in doing this. In some countries, the formalities were discussed with the respective Ministry of Finance, while in the UK even a formal ratification by parliament was necessary. Overall, it took longer than expected to establish the EEIG, but this was finally achieved in 1992. Some problems and disadvantages still exist: members from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and also from Norway and Switzerland cannot become members of the EEIG as their countries do not belong to the European Union.
Due to the decision to form an EEIG, some modifications in the structure of ERCIM were necessary (see Figure 2):
- Board of Directors: The Board of Directors consists of one Executive Director per member institute. They have to approve the final balance of the previous and the budget for the next financial year. Apart from these formal decisions the Board of Directors also decides on proposals made by the Executive Committee and on the general policy of ERCIM. The Directors elect one of the Board as President for a three-year period (currently Prof. Dr. Gerard van Oortmerssen, CWI), to formally represent ERCIM.
- Executive Committee: On the working level, the business of ERCIM is co-ordinated by the Executive Committee (again one representative per member). Its responsibilities include suggestions on the budget, decisions regarding the fellowship programme, working groups, etc. In general it is the committee where ERCIM members discuss scientific and technical questions, prepare material for the Board of Directors and carry out its decisions as well as taking decisions on the every day business of ERCIM.
- ERCIM Office: The EEIG was registered in Paris as INRIA volunteered to host the ERCIM office. A team of 5 people is now running the office, and dealing with all administrative issues of ERCIM.
However, ERCIM is defined mainly by its scientific initiatives. In addition to the work of the above-mentioned boards, directed at organising, managing and guiding research, the ERCIM projects, working groups and other activities are of great importance for ERCIM.
ERCIM participates in a number of research projects as co-ordinator or associated partner. In these projects, several member institutes conduct the scientific activities while ERCIM is responsible for management tasks.
ERCIM also undertakes studies, evaluations and offers consultancy services. ERCIM has carried out a number of studies for the European Commission, e.g. on the Internet in the Mediterranean region, on Tunisian research in information technology, on Centres of Excellence in High Performance Computing in southern Mediterranean countries and on EU-China industrial co-operation in High-Performance Computing and Networking. ERCIM is currently evaluating proposals in the framework of the World Bank's InfoDev programme, aimed at improving conditions in developing countries with the help of IT. Furthermore, ERCIM is preparing an action to raise awareness among Latin American scientists and technologists of the opportunities related to the IST programme of the EU in the context of the 5th Framework programme.
The ERCIM Fellowship Programme
The ERCIM Fellowship Programme was launched in 1990 to enable young scientists from around the world to perform research at ERCIM institutes. Applications are solicited twice a year with a deadline of 30 November and 31 May. The ERCIM Fellowship programme focuses on topics of interest identified by the ERCIM working groups. Ideally, a fellow will work for a total of 18 months in two ERCIM institutes, thus contributing not only to the work done locally, but also to cohesion between ERCIM partners and to the cross-fertilisation and co-operation between research groups working in similar areas in different laboratories. The fellowship scheme also helps young scientists to become involved in one of the ERCIM working group initiatives, to improve their knowledge of European research structures and networks and to familiarise them with working conditions in leading European research institutions.
The purpose of an ERCIM working group is to build and maintain a network of ERCIM researchers in a particular scientific field. The working groups are also the focus of internal mobility within ERCIM (stay and work in another ERCIM institute for 1 to 6 months) and fellows under the ERCIM fellowship programme are mainly chosen under the auspicious of the co-operation in the working groups. For details on the activities of many of the working groups, see pages 12-29.
Awards and Sponsorships
ERCIM is also promoting internal as well as external excellence and co-operation:
Cor Baayen Award: This award for the most promising young researcher in computer science and applied mathematics was created in 1995 to honour the first ERCIM President. From this year, the award is open to any young researcher having completed his/her PhD-thesis in one of the fourteen 'ERCIM countries': Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK. The award consists of a cheque of 5.000 Euro together with an award certificate.
Working Group Award: Starting from this year, ERCIM is giving an award of 20,000 Euro to the best working group of the year. This award demonstrates the importance of the working groups to ERCIM.
Conference and Workshop/Summer school sponsorship: ERCIM sponsors up to five high quality internationally recognised conferences and six workshops or summer schools per year in order to demonstrate ERCIM's ties with important events in the area and to support them with up to 2000 Euro. With this financial support, for example an interesting speaker can be invited to the event.
Review and Outlook
ERCIM today probably looks different from what its founders anticipated 10 years ago. It would go beyond the scope of this article to examine in detail into what has been achieved and what has not been possible for ERCIM to do, but some highlights can be mentioned:
- Representatives of ERCIM are increasingly and explicitly invited to participate in research policy preparing actions (example: shaping of the co-operation in the European research policy with the Mediterranean, preparation of the 5th framework programme.
- Many European Commission officers are now aware of the existence of ERCIM and use its expertise. This covers the organisation of conferences (e.g. on the information society in the Mediterranean), studies (e.g. IT research in Tunisia) and also contracts to undertake initiatives for the EC (e.g. the initiative in Latin America mentioned above).
- Jointly organised international symposia and conferences have been held successfully both for ERCIM Institutes and as assignments on behalf of the EC.
- The Fellowship Programme has become an important part of ERCIM, and has contributed to the high awareness of ERCIM in the scientific community, ensuring that highly qualified scientists from all over the world contribute with their knowledge to the progress of research.
- The Cor Baayen Award has received a good response. We hope that opening it up to the whole research community of the ERCIM countries will further improve its visibility and help to identify young, bright European PhD graduates.
- The quarterly 'ERCIM News' has established itself firmly in the community and has become an important organ of ERCIM. An average circulation of 7.000 issues in more than 70 countries on top of the online edition are clear evidence of this.
- The number of ERCIM working groups has mushroomed since its modest beginning. It is a dynamic development with some topics (and thus working groups) phasing out over time, while others with new topics, covering new research areas, are being created. As long as the number of new working groups outnumbers the ones shutting down, we at ERCIM are confident that the working groups will remain the core of ERCIM.
It cannot be denied that with 14 current members and more to come there are problems in achieving consensus on every point, which may well increase as the number increases. The member institutes and consortia can be seen as representative of the IT scenario of their respective country. The diversity of the represented countries and consequently the diversity of opinions means that there is a permanent discussion on the right ongoing strategy for ERCIM. Of course, there are sometimes tensions between the more application-oriented and basic research-oriented members within ERCIM. But the discussions always aim at the integration and the promotion of mutual goals in the interest of ERCIM.
Nowadays, on one hand ERCIM promotes research while on the other, it is becoming more and more involved in the process of European integration. It is fascinating to experience how some of the problems, but also the advantages of the European Union in the large context of society are duplicate in the smaller context of research and science. On reflection, this is not really surprising. Research as well as science cannot be seen as isolated from the social context. The social environment has an impact on science and research and this at the same time can affect the social environment - especially in the area of information and communication, which are closer to daily life than many other research areas. So after all, ERCIM can be seen as an association with a high social relevance.
Thus, the members of ERCIM not only determine how ERCIM will develop in future, but have their share of responsibility for the process of European integration.
Eckart Bierdümpel - GMD
Chairman of the ERCIM Executive Committee Tel: +49 2241 14 2256