The European Research Council: Awarding Excellent Ideas since 2007

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 05/2012




(Photo: Fotolia/VRD)

Get your brain into gear after the summer break and become one of the last 900 ERC awardees in the 7th EU Framework Programme. Lab Times sums up the past, present and future of the European Research Council whose mission is to "put excellence at the heart of European research".

More than €50 billion are up for offer in the ongoing 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) of the European Union. Objectives and activities fall into the four main categories Capacities, Cooperation, People and Ideas. In contrast to the first three categories, Ideas was a real novelty. For the first time, a research programme was introduced by the EU, which is funding basic research exclusively on excellence criteria, is investigator-driven as well as independent of thematic priorities and does not require any cross-border activities. Moreover, the Ideas programme was implemented by the first pan-European funding agency, the newly established European Research Council (ERC).

€7.5 billion or 15% of the total FP7 budget have been earmarked for the ERC. Close to 5,000 principal investigators with high-risk and potentially high-gain projects have to be identified by 2013. For you as a scientist, becoming an ERC grantee means prestige, financial independence and the possibility to push the quality and output of your research in a five-year project that may not have received funding by national sources. Hurry up! The final calls for ERC grants in FP7 have been made and, with October 17 drawing closer, the first of the last deadlines in FP7 requires your attention. Not all researchers are aware that the ERC budget is not evenly spread over FP7 but is at its highest now. This time close to a quarter of all ERC grants awarded in FP7 will be given away.

ERC history

When you cover a funding body that has just celebrated its 5th anniversary, there is not too much history to tell but plenty of plans for the future. The idea of a strong European research base, however, was put forward repeatedly over the last decades by pre-eminent scientists and various pro-Europe interest groups. The term “European Research Area” (ERA) turned up in a communication by the European Commission in the year 2000 and became an integral part of the Lisbon strategy.

Several hurdles and misconceptions needed to be removed before the ERC took shape. Firstly, pure basic research was judged to be too far away from the market to have any economic or social impact and should therefore not receive any priority in Framework Programmes. Secondly, European value in Framework Programmes was believed to be added primarily by funding research that involves cross-border cooperative research networks and mobility measures. And finally, there was great scepticism whether a partially autonomous body headed by a bunch of scientists would at all be able to run a European Commission programme accordingly.

In 2003, an ERC Expert Group presented their concept, which received wide support. The Commission agreed to include the ERC into FP7 two years later. A 22-member Scientific Council was installed and Fotis Kafatos, a former Harvard Professor and Director General of the EMBL, was elected as Chair and President. In 2007, the ERC was officially launched and was shortly thereafter steamrolled by more than 9,000 ERC Starting Grant applications. The former President of the German Research Council (DFG) Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker became the first Secretary General of the ERC.


A reason to celebrate. The European Research Council turned five this year. (Photo: ERC, Vivian Hertz)

Today’s ERC

The two main components of the ERC are the Scientific Council and the Executive Agency. The Scientific Council is in charge of the overall scientific strategy and quality management, the annual work programme and all scientific aspects of the application process. The appointment of its members by the European Commission is based on recommendations made by an independent Search Committee. Members are towering scientists, cover a wide range of topics and nationalities and, with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Tim Hunt, include two Nobel laureates at present. The Scientific Council is headed by the Austrian Helga Nowotny, who is supported by two Vice-Presidents, the Czech Pavel Exner and the Swede Carl-Henrik Heldin. The Council operates as a general assembly or in form of Standing Committees and Task Forces addressing specific topics such as scientific misconduct, ethics, internationalisation or gender balance.

The administrative arm of the ERC is the Executive Agency (ERCEA). ERCEA implements the FP7 Ideas Programme along the parameters set by the Scientific Council and is in charge of the day-to-day administration of grants. ERCEA has been directed by Pablo Amor since August 2012 and is supervised by a five-member Steering Committee. It is organised into several departments and units employing about 360 agents, who work to the greater majority as contract agents. The ERCEA administrative budget is to be about €40 million or 2.3% of the ERC budget in 2013. The ERC Board serves as a link between the Scientific Council and ERCEA and comprises the ERC President, two Vice-Presidents, the ERCEA Director and the Secretary General, Donald Dingwell, who also liaisons with the European Commission.

ERC funding – salmagundi style

The ERC funding schemes are open to preeminent researchers of any nationality or age wishing to pursue frontier research in one of the 27 EU Member States or several associated countries including Switzerland, Norway or Israel. The term “frontier research” has been coined to indicate that research funded by the ERC has a novel quality and goes beyond existing knowledge: it has to be risky, should cover novel research areas and is supposed to pass disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, research proposals with pioneering ideas that address new and emerging fields and applications that introduce unconventional and innovative approaches have good prospects to receive funding.

There are three main ERC funding programmes: Starting, Consolidator and Advanced Grants. As already mentioned, research has to be performed either at a public or private host institution in one of the EU member states or the associated countries or in one of the international European Interest Organisations, for example, at the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) or the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN. The host institution has to attest that its ERC investigators are truly independent: they apply independently for funding and are in charge of resource allocation and project management. Moreover, they must publish as senior author, supervise team members including doctoral students and have access to the appropriate infrastructure. ERC Investigators may have several affiliations but have to spend at least 30% or more of their working time on the ERC project and half of their working time in Europe. Calls for ERC grants are made on a yearly basis. The five-year grants are generally portable, meaning that if the investigator moves to another institution of an eligible host country he is allowed to take unused funds with him. If the investigator is coming from a non-eligible country and has to set up a new lab from scratch, requires expensive equipment or access to costly research facilities €0.5, €0.75 or €1 million may be added on top of the Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grant, respectively.

Grants for Starters

Starting Grants (StG) are targeting research talents with proven potential, who are in the progress of establishing their own research group and conduct independent research. Two to seven years of research experience after obtaining a doctoral title is required. Maternity or paternity leave, fulfilment of national service and other causes may extend this period. Evidence of scientific maturity has to be provided, which means at least one important publication without your PhD supervisor, a track record of achievements including publications in major international journals, awards, granted patents or invited presentations at leading international conferences. Starting grants cover up to €1.5 million for a five-year period. Principal investigators funded by ERC Starting Grants are expected to spend at least half of their total working time on the ERC project and in Europe.

Grants for Consolidators

Consolidator Grants (CoG) have been introduced earlier this year to satisfy the varying demands of lesser and more advanced scientists on their way to full independence. Applications for the Consolidator Grants should follow within a seven to twelve-year period after receiving a doctoral title. The programme targets scientists who want to further strengthen their established research group. Conditions are similar to those of the ERC Starting Grants. Of course, the bar for proven potential is raised as well as the amount of funding, which can be up to €2 million.

Advanced Grants (AdG) are open for established scientists with a track record that identifies them as leaders in their respective research field. Highly ambitious, pioneering and unconventional research that opens novel directions is supported with up to €2.5 million. To be eligible for application, at least one benchmark should be met: for example, ten publications as senior author in top journals, five granted patents, recognition through scientific prizes/awards but also recognised leadership in industrial innovation. PIs should devote at least 30% of their working time to the ERC project, while spending at least half of their total working time in Europe.

More than welcome add-ons

Two new funding measures have been recently added: Proof of Concept and Synergy Grants. Proof of Concept is a so-called Coordination and Support Action. Researchers who have already secured an ERC grant may ask for this extra. Funds up to €150,000 for one year are provided to exploit the commercial or societal application of results gained within ERC projects. This should serve to bridge the gap between research and marketable innovation, the ominous “valley of death”. In order to apply, scientists need to have an ongoing ERC project or one that was completed less than 12 months before announcement of the programme call. There is one call per year with two deadlines. About 50 projects received support with a success rate of 33% last year. The total volume of the call was €10 million.

Big bucks are seizable from Synergy Grants. Teams of two to four principal investigators pool together their complimentary skills, expertise and resources and it is expected that they do so at the same physical location and for a significant amount of time. Funding per team is up to €15 million for a period of up to six years. The first call was more than 50-fold oversubscribed. With the €150 million budget only about 10 to 15 of the 700 submitted proposals will receive funding. Applications will be evaluated towards two major headings: group research (ground-breaking nature and potential impact of research, added value of the group and methodology) and principal investigators (intellectual capacity and creativity as well as commitment). Winners of the competition will be chosen at the end of next January.

The final round for ERC grant applications in FP7 has been advertised. €1.75 billion or a quarter of the whole ERC budget in FP7 will support about 900 new ERC awardees. The allocation of funds will be €400 million for Starting, €520 million for Consolidator and €660 million for Advanced Grants. The budget shares for the different domains are as follows: Physical Sciences and Engineering (44%), Life Sciences (39%) and Social Sciences and Humanities (17%). The respective submission deadlines are 17 October 2012 (Starting Grants), 22 November 2012 (Advanced Grants) and 21 February 2013 (Consolidator Grants).

Rules of the game

Depending on your research experience, level of independence and track record it’s all about choosing the ERC Grant that fits your profile. Get in contact and visit potential host institutions early. If there are already ERC grantees, talk to them about possible support during the application process and about your institutional integration and extra benefits once you prevail. Ask them also for a copy of their successful ERC application. Once you have opted for a host institution, it is also advisable to contact the administration. For example, you may need the help of Finance and Human Resources to make appropriate budget calculations. Depending on your type of research, you will have to get familiar with the local regulations applying to ethics, animal work or genetically-modified organisms, since your ERC proposal will also be submitted to an Ethic Review in parallel to its scientific evaluation. Close to the deadline you also have to take care of signatures from top officials at your prospective host institution.

Applications have to be submitted in response to a “Call for Proposals”. In general, there are three to four months between the publication of the call and the application deadline. Calls are published on the ERC website or the Participant Portal of the European Commission. Register at the Participant Portal to gain access to the necessary documents including the call fiche, the guide to applicants, the work programme and others.

Some calls foresee a mandatory pre-registration with a deadline and some information about the intended project has to be submitted so that the ERC can deal more efficiently with the applications. Read the guide to applicants several times carefully. Get additional help, for example, from your National Contact Point or other organisations in your country, which provide support to ERC applicants. Even if you think that writing the proposal is pretty much straightforward, get in touch. They have day-to-day exposure to all issues concerning the ERC and can provide you with additional insights that may improve your proposal. Some even offer to read your proposal before you hit the submit button. This might prevent the sudden death of your application due to formal errors.

Give me an A

Applications are submitted via EPSS, the Electronic Submission Service. After getting a receipt of your submission, there is nothing more you can do. A time frame of your call is provided, which tells you when to put the bottle of champagne into the lab fridge. In 2011, the Time to Contract for three-quarters of the applications, meaning the time from the deadline of a call to the signature of the ERC grant agreement, was about 420 days. Two-thirds of the time was spent on the evaluation, whereas the rest was needed to prepare the contract between the European Commission and the host institution.

Applications in the main ERC grant schemes follow the one-step submission/two-step evaluation procedure. This means that a full proposal is submitted, followed by an eligibility check and then two rounds of evaluation. In the first round the extended synopsis of the proposal, the CV and the track record of the investigator are reviewed, whereas in the second round the full proposal, including the 15-page scientific proposal, is assessed. As outcome of the first round, only proposals, which are being rated as “A” proposals, progress to the second evaluation. In the second evaluation, proposals receiving an “A” are ranked and recommended for funding. Due to the limited availability of funds NOT all “A” proposals receive funding.

The three main ERC grants all have their own evaluation body made up of 25 thematic panels with 10 to 15 panel members each. They cover three large domains: Life Sciences (9 panels), Physical and Engineering Sciences (10 panels) as well as Social Sciences and Humanities (6 panels). Panels are assisted during evaluation by various external experts, i.e. panel evaluators, referees and independent observers. Proposals are submitted to a single panel by the applicants. In case of multi-panel proposals, members from different panels take care of the evaluation. Again, you may get some help and interview training from your national organisations in charge of ERC support.

Only applicants for Starting Grants are invited for a 30-minute interview as part of the second evaluation step. The interview usually takes place in Brussels, where at least three panel members are present. During the second panel meeting, the proposals are scored numerically taking also into account the results of the interviews. Finally, panel chairs agree on a ranked list of proposals. The applicant receives a feedback on the outcome of each evaluation step. Appeals based on formal but not scientific grounds are possible.

No waste of effort

Even if you were not among the happy winners you may still benefit from a highly-ranked proposal. Several countries have started national initiatives to support not-funded applicants. Those include the Czech Republic, Flanders, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden. In addition, Bulgaria and Ireland are currently setting up respective funding schemes. However, the target group as well as the kind of support is highly variable and some initiatives are limited to flopped Starting Grant applicants.

To give some examples: TÜBİTAK, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, awards €5,000 to each ERC applicant receiving an “A” or “B” in the second evaluation step. The National Research Fund of Luxembourg makes available grants of the same size as the ERC grant for not-funded “A” proposals. Other countries, such as Italy, have installed competitive programmes restricted to scientists participating without success in the ERC competition, whereas Flanders supports only the best-ranked scientist on the Starting Grant reserve list. Some initiatives have been closed in the meantime due to financial shortcuts or due to the fact that there was no further need to provide additional incentives for participation in ERC competitions.


Even though it's sometimes exceedingly hard to transcribe your brilliant ideas onto paper, it's definitely worth a try. And there's professional help, too. (Photo: Fotolia/Brian Jackson)

ERC stats

By the middle of 2012, more than 26,000 applications had been made to the ERC. At present, there are about 2,700 ongoing grants and a couple of hundred proposals under evaluation or in the contract phase. There was an unusually high demand in the first round of ERC calls: applications for 9,167 Starting Grants (StG) and 2,200 Advanced Grants (AdG) were made. In the second round, there was less interest and 2,500 StG and 1,600 AdG proposals were received. The number of applicants further increased and reached 4,750 in the fifth StG call and 2,300 in the fourth AdG call.

Leaving out the results from the first StG round, the chances of success have, so far, been about 13% for Starting and 14% with respect to Advanced Grants. This seems to be acceptable, if the effort of the applicant is balanced against the potential reward. However, there are growing concerns that a number of ERC grantees approaching five-digits will take some shine off the ERC excellence label.

What about the age distribution of applicants? StG grantees are between 24 and 43 years old with a broad peak around the age of 33. As expected, the age of AdG awardees varies more widely between 36 and 76 years. It turns out that the AdG grant is a well-received opportunity for older scientists to secure funding beyond the ordinary retiring age.

Combined ERC participation and success rates of female scientists are roughly 20%. A Gender Equality Plan was put forward by the ERC in 2011. Major aims are to increase the number of female applicants and improve female participation in all aspects of the ERC including, e.g., their representation in review panels. The 2,700 present ERC grantees are distributed over 480 host institutions in 26 countries. However, as excellence seems to follow excellence, 50 institutions are attracting half of all awardees. Among the four most attractive host institutions are the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The two most frequented research organisations are the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the German Max Planck Society (MPG). Between 2007 and 2011 Switzerland, Israel and France were leading the crowd with respect to the relative success rate, whereas Germany, France and the UK were hosting the most ERC awardees.

The ERC under scrutiny

As a several billion undertaking, the ERC is under constant supervision and permanent pressure to evolve. It has to furnish day-to-day proof that the ERC as a funding body itself is able to meet the highest standards and that it is committed to excellence – not only when it comes to singling out the best research proposals. This pertains to all structures and mechanisms of the Scientific Council as well as that of the ERCEA. Three main monitoring mechanisms are in place: evaluation of specific topics by internal task forces, reviews by external task forces installed by the European Commission and a thorough impact analysis in frame of Coordination and Support Actions (CSA) funded by the ERC after public calls.

The last Task Force report was published in 2011 and was executed in light of the upcoming Horizon 2020 programme. In summary, it was acknowledged that the ERC so far fulfilled or even surpassed the expectations of the scientific community and the political actors. At the same time, a number of recommendations to increase the autonomy of the ERC and the oversight of scientific, financial and administrative matters were made. For example, President of the ERC should become a full-time job with residency in Brussels and at the expense of the ERC Secretary General position. And the role of the ERCEA Director should be enhanced. Moreover, the creation of an independent private ERC foundation called “Friends of the ERC” should assist the management of private donations to the ERC in future. Implementing these recommendations requires in some cases not only simple decisions by the Commission but also modifications to the existing EU law governing the ERC.

Several research projects, being funded as Coordination and Support Actions, are in progress. The project DBF is developing a bibliometric model to analyse whether the current ERC peer review system is indeed identifying and selecting “Frontier” research. Along the same lines, the project ERACEP is addressing whether ERC grants really do cover and contribute to emerging research areas. The two projects MERCI and EURECIA are focused on the impact the ERC has on career development, host institutions, funding organisations and research policies.

The final report by EURECIA was published in May 2012 and came to some interesting conclusions. For example, the impact that the ERC has on top-level institutions is less pronounced because hiring the best is everyday practice, and the respective structures and incentives are most often already in place. To reach competitiveness, mid-level organisations seem to get pushed by ERC competitions towards more professionalism in all aspects of grant application and project management, increased recognition and promotion of young talents, and a more focused allocation of funds to support already strong research areas. For low-level, the failure to receive an ERC grant offers the chance to recognise the status quo and identify areas of weakness. For other aspects of the assessments the authors concluded that it is still too early to make any statements on impact.

ERC goes global

The participation of principal investigators and team members from countries outside the EU is still very low. Therefore, the “ERC goes Global” campaign was kick-started this year as part of the ERC internationalisation strategy. In the scope of this campaign more than 15 countries will be visited by ERC officials up until the end of 2014. Canada and South Africa as well as several countries from Latin America and Asia have been crossed off the to-do list. Russia and the Ukraine will be next.

The overall goal is to raise the global awareness of the ERC and its funding schemes in order to increase the number of ERC grantees from outside the European Research Area, as well as encouraging the worldwide talent to become team members in ERC-funded projects. This is done by introducing the ERC at career fairs and leading conferences, such as the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada or the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, by visiting leading research institutions and by getting acquainted with other research funding agencies.

Along those lines, an international agreement was signed between the European Commission and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the middle of July, which opens research projects funded by the ERC to US scientists. As part of the agreement, the NSF will ask scientists already funded by the NSF, either junior faculty in its CAREER programme or postdocs in the NSF postdoc fellowship programme, to submit proposals for a six to twelve-month research stay in the lab of an ERC grantee. In turn, the ERC will identify group leaders willing to incorporate US scientists into their teams. The NSF will be in charge of travel costs for the applicant and his family and the NSF grant of the CAREER awardees will remain effective during the stay in Europe. US scientists will be supported by the ERC grant in the same way as any other team member. The ERC intends to strike similar deals with other countries soon.

Horizon 2020

Horizon 2020 is the name of the next EU Framework Programme (2014-2020). The role of the ERC in the Framework Programme will be extended and further strengthened in Horizon 2020. The announced budget is 13.2 billion, an increase of about 75% in comparison to FP7. Thereby, the budget share of the ERC will reach an impressive 17%. The ERC will be placed into the new category Excellent Science, which should “reinforce and extend the excellence of the EU’s science base, consolidate the European Research Area and make the Research and Innovation System of the EU more competitive globally”. At the beginning of Horizon 2020 the existing funding schemes of the ERC will be continued. Novel schemes may be added later during the programme.

Outlook

The European Research Council has managed, in a very short period of time, to become fully operational, to create a highly-recognised excellence label and to make a significant amount of funds available to the scientific community. Whether all objectives and goals may continue to be reached in the long run remains to be seen. Of course, there is room for improvement. But one has to acknowledge that the ERC is on a sticky wicket and, therefore, on a trial and error mission in some areas.

Slightly bothering is the scepticism of some political actors that are still questioning the necessity of an ERC at all and who, at some point in time, might gain ascendancy and threaten the ERC's very existence. What is also surprising to some extent is that some scientists do not stop complaining about filling out time sheets, an activity that seems to tie up their administrative capacity and threaten their academic freedom. With the continuation of the ERC programmes until 2020 many young investigators will have the opportunity to gain full independence and the associated PhD students, and postdocs may benefit too by being part of a research team that is built on excellence in science.

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