European Research Council

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European Research Council
European Research Council logo.svg

The European Research Council (ERC) is the independent body that funds investigator-driven frontier research in the European Union (EU). It is part of the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7).

The Council supports all disciplines, from the biological and physical sciences to engineering and the humanities. It was formally launched in February 2007 by a common action of the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. Created to provide a new source and philosophy for competitive funding, based on peer-reviewed excellence as the sole criterion for success, the ERC is aiming to set new standards and create a level playing field for research across a diverse continent of 500 million people in 39 countries with a collective economy of €15 trillion. The ERC is an inclusive institution that seeks excellence irrespective of nationality, gender, or location.[1]

History[edit]

The idea of having a funding mechanism for basic research at the EU level has been discussed and supported among European scientists for a long time. However, its realisation was held back at the political level because the European Treaty, which is the document that forms the legal basis of the EU, was interpreted as allowing EU funding only to strengthen the scientific and technological base of European industry – that is, only funding for applied research rather than basic research. In conjunction with the Lisbon declaration in 2000, leaders of the EU, in particular the European Commissioner for Research at the time, Philippe Busquin, realised that the European Treaty had to be reinterpreted; a transformation of European economy from traditional manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy has to involve the enhanced support at the European level for science of all kinds, including fundamental science as well as applied science.

Several important initiatives, which paved the way for the ERC, were taken at the beginning of the century by a number of organisations and individuals and a series of communications in the scientific literature laid out the need for a research council in Europe.

In 2003, a report from the ERC Expert Group (ERCEG), chaired by Professor Federico Mayor, described how the ERC might take shape. In 2004, a high-level expert group was commissioned to further explore the possibilities of creating an ERC. This group concluded that the EU should establish an ERC to support frontier research. A number of other expert groups, such as one commissioned by the European Science Foundation, another charged with the task of analysing the economic implications of the Lisbon declaration and a high level group commissioned by the European Commission, also arrived at a similar conclusion and boosted the idea of establishing an ERC. With the ice broken, scientists and politicians have since strongly supported the establishment of an ERC. In 2006, the European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers accepted the Seventh Framework Programme for the European Union's support for research, of which the ERC was a part. In the ERC kick-off conference in Berlin, various speakers talked of 'an idea whose time has come', 'a European factory of ideas', 'a champions' league’, 'a great day for Europe and a great day for science', and the beginning of a 'snowball effect'.[2][3]

Governance & structure[edit]

The ERC is governed by the Scientific Council (ScC), consisting of 22 eminent European scientists and scholars, and supported operationally by the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA), based in Brussels. The ScC is responsible for setting the ERC's scientific strategy including establishing the annual 'Ideas' Work Programme and calls for proposals, designing the peer review systems, identifying the peer review experts, and communicating with the scientific community. The Scientific Council members were nominated by Commissioner Potočnik in July 2005 and worked intensively to define the key principles and scientific operating practices of the ERC in preparation for the start-up. Following its formal establishment, the Scientific Council reaffirmed the election of its Chair and ERC president, Professor Fotis Kafatos, and the two Vice-Chairs and ERC Vice-Presidents, Professor Helga Nowotny and Dr. Daniel Estève. After the resignation of Fotis Kafatos in February 2010, Helga Nowotny was elected president. Since March 2011, Vice-Presidents are Prof. Carl-Henrik Heldin and Prof. Pavel Exner.

The second pillar of the ERC, the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA), is responsible for supporting the peer review process, implementing ERC strategy as set by the ScC, and executing all financial operations. The ERCEA is currently headed by its Director, Pablo Amor. It employs some 350 staff of which more than 50 are PhD scientists.

To couple the two pillars and create an integrated institution, two integrative mechanisms were put in place:

  1. The post of Secretary General (SG), selected by the ScC and located in Brussels, with the goal of interacting closely with the ERCEA. The first SG, the biochemist Prof. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was for 8 years the head of the largest national research agency in Europe, the German Research Foundation (DFG). The second SG was Prof. Andreu Mas-Colell, a distinguished scientist (Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, Professor at Berkeley, at Harvard, and at Pompeu Fabra, and recipient of several honorary doctorates and numerous prestigious prizes and awards). The third and current Secretary General (since September 2011) is Prof. Donald Bruce Dingwell, Volcanologist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) and himself an ERC Advanced Grantee. It is widely recognised that all three Secretaries General have been instrumental in the success of the ERC to date, and have worked closely and fruitfully together with the two consecutive Directors-ad-Interim of the ERCEA, Dr. Jack Metthey and Pablo Amor.
  1. The ERC Board consisting of the three ScC Chairs, the Director of the ERCEA and the Secretary General.

There is also a five-member ERCEA Steering Committee, chaired by the EC's Director-General for Research Robert Jan Smits and including a distinguished external scientist (currently Catherine Cesarsky), a ScC member, and two senior EC officers.

During the first half of 2011, a Task Force chaired by Robert Jan Smits, decided to give further suggestions regarding the governance structure of the ERC in the next European Commission's Framework Programme (Horizon 2020), beginning with 2014. Inter alia, it was suggested to merge the positions of the President and of the Secretary General into a full-time employed president in Brussels.

Budget[edit]

The ERC budget is guaranteed at €7.51 billion for 2007–2013, the duration of the EC's 7th Framework Programme. It provided €300 million in 2007 and will increase by ~€250 million each year, reaching just under €1.8 billion for 2013. The ERC budget is supported by the European Commission and is supplemented by contributions from states associated with but not currently members of the EU (the associated countries). Together, the 27 EU member states and the 12 associated countries comprise the European Research Area (ERA).

Founding principles: Frontier research based on peer-reviewed excellence[edit]

The first founding principle of the ERC is that research grant applications should be judged using the sole criterion of peer-reviewed excellence, independent of political, geographic or economic considerations. All ERC calls for funding are open to nationals of any country in the world, as long as they are committed to work primarily in Europe. The quality and originality of the research project and the qualifications of the applicant, as shown, for example, by their publication record, are the only evaluation criteria. This means that there will be no juste retour, in other words there are no guarantees that the individual countries contributing to the programme will receive any part of the funding.

The second founding principle of the ERC is to target frontier research[4] by encouraging high-risk, high-reward proposals that may revolutionise science and potentially lead to innovation if successful. The ScC does not pre-select the frontiers, but challenges applicants to identify and pursue them. It then entrusts the evaluation panels to select the best, most promising proposals. Funding is provided for individual projects initiated in an investigator-driven, ‘bottom‑up’ process. Although collaborations within a project are welcome, there is no formal demand to collaborate.

The ERC asks researchers to think big, and provides generous support for ambitious projects. It does not want its carefully selected grantees to waste their time by taking on numerous peripheral projects, or constantly having to seek additional money to fund their research. The grants are flexible, so that all costs for a specific project can be covered, making rebudgeting of the grant money possible during the duration of the grant. In addition, the grants are portable, meaning that if scientists move to another university or institute, the grant moves with them.

Types of grants offered[edit]

The ERC offers several core grant schemes:[5]

ERC Starting Grants support up-and-coming independent research leaders of any nationality with:

  • 2 to 7 years after PhD award (*)
  • An excellent track record
  • A ground-breaking research proposal
  • A host organisation located in Europe
  • Promotion of early scientific independence of promising talents
  • Up to €2 million per grant for up to five years

(*) Allowance is provided for time spent on career breaks, parental leave and national service. Further, the ERC panels are encouraged to be open to excellent and promising candidates with "unconventional" careers.

Consolidator grant

  • "for researchers who have been awarded their first PhD over 7 and up to 12 years prior to the publication date of the call."

Synergy grant

ERC Advanced Grants (AdG) support outstanding advanced researchers of any nationality with:

  • An exceptional scientific leadership profile
  • An excellent scientific track record
  • A ground-breaking research proposal
  • A primary host organisation located in Europe
  • Up to EUR 3.5 million per grant for up to five years

Success rates[edit]

This chart shows success rates.[6]

Grant Applications Grants Success rate
StG-07 9167 299 3.4%
StG-09 2503 245 10.2%
StG-10 2873 436 15.8%
StG-11 4080 488 12.2%
StG-12 4741 536 11.5%
AdG-08 2167 282 13.9%
AdG-09 1583 245 16.1%
AdG-10 2009 271 13.8%
AdG-11 2284 303 13.5%

ERC peer review[edit]

The ERC's peer-review evaluation process must command the confidence of the research community and is central to the achievement of the ERC's objectives. The ERC ScC divided the full range of scientific disciplines into three major domains, with budgets allotted to each based on the weighted average distribution of national funding in scientifically strong countries worldwide: 34% for life sciences, 14% for social sciences/humanities and 39% for physical/engineering sciences. The ScC strongly encourages interdisciplinary proposals, for which a notional 13% of the budget is reserved, if sufficient top-quality proposals are submitted. The ERC philosophy towards interdisciplinary proposals is to apply mainstreaming, i.e. to have them reviewed by sufficiently knowledgeable panellists and/or external reviewers but to ultimately rank them competitively within their primary panel. Clearly, identifying and rewarding true interdisciplinarity is a challenging yet worthwhile task and one would expect that the ERC, being a novel and learning organisation, would likely adapt and refine its procedures vis-a-vis the treatment of interdisciplinary proposals as experience is gained.

The peer review in the three domains is carried out by a total of 25 panels led by Panel Chairs whose scientific status gives credibility to the selection process. The configuration of the evaluation panels was finalised by the Scientific Council during the first semester of 2008, taking account of the experience from the first Starting Grant call. For the Advanced Grant, two sets of panels have been put in place, operating in alternate years. This moderates the workload on individual reviewers and means that they are not excluded from applying to the ERC on alternate years when they are not involved in panels. There are currently thus about 900 ERC panel members; together with the 2000 external reviewers they constitute the backbone of the ERC evaluation structure.

Within each panel, there is not only a chair, but also an expertise specialists that typically leads all grants reviews in their area. Due to the broad spectrum of fields represented in each panel, the expertise leader has an overwhelming influence on other panel member's scoring, giving them the influence to block applications without debate. Panels can also be dominated by one or more members. In the instance of the 2013 CoG LS7 panel, one member was able to influence the panel to give 5 of the 16 awards to their home country, the only awards for the country in the entire grant round. There has also been speculation on the modification of the panel member voting process as many members tend to vote each other back onto the same panels year after year.

Relations with stakeholders in Europe[edit]

By its existence, the ERC aims to enhance the performance of the European research system. The ERC and national funding bodies have important objectives in common – improving the climate for frontier research in Europe and the attractiveness of the European research environment. The Scientific Council has been keen to learn from the ERC’s peers in national research councils (European and overseas) and to engage in dialogue and appropriate collaboration. The ERC has already benefited from the support of national funding agencies, both in seconding national experts to its Executive Agency, and providing expert support to assist in the Starting Grant evaluation.

Open access[edit]

The Scientific Council has engaged actively in the debate on access and availability of publications and research results. It has adopted an ‘open access’ policy by requiring that all peer-reviewed publications from ERC-funded research projects are deposited in the appropriate Internet-accessible libraries within 6 months of publication.

European Research Council: domains and panels[edit]

Domain PE: Physical Sciences & Engineering

PE1 Mathematical foundations: all areas of mathematics, pure and applied, plus mathematical foundations of computer science, mathematical physics and statistics
PE2 Fundamental constituents of matter: particle, nuclear, plasma, atomic, molecular, gas, and optical physics
PE3 Condensed matter physics: structure, electronic properties, fluids, nanosciences
PE4 Physical and analytical chemical sciences: analytical chemistry, chemical theory, physical chemistry/chemical physics
PE5 Materials and synthesis: materials synthesis, structure-properties relations, functional and advanced materials, molecular architecture, organic chemistry
PE6 Computer science and informatics: informatics and information systems, computer science, scientific computing, intelligent systems
PE7 Systems and communication engineering: electronic, communication, optical and systems engineering
PE8 Products and processes engineering: product design, process design and control, construction methods, civil engineering, energy systems, material engineering
PE9 Universe sciences: astro-physics/chemistry/biology; solar system; stellar, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, planetary systems, cosmology, space science, instrumentation
PE10 Earth system science: physical geography, geology, geophysics, meteorology, oceanography, climatology, ecology, global environmental change, biogeochemical cycles, natural resources management.

Domain SH: Social Sciences & Humanities

SH1 Individuals, institutions and markets: economics, finance and management
SH2 Institutions, values and beliefs and behaviour: sociology, social anthropology, political science, law, communication, social studies of science and technology
SH3 Environment and society: environmental studies, demography, social geography, urban and regional studies
SH4 The Human Mind and its complexity: cognition, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and education
SH5 Cultures and cultural production: literature, visual and performing arts, music, cultural and comparative studies
SH6 The study of the human past: archaeology, history and memory.

Domain LS: Life Sciences

LS1 Molecular and Structural Biology and Biochemistry: molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, structural biology, biochemistry of signal transduction
LS2 Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology: genetics, population genetics, molecular genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics, computational biology, biostatistics, biological modelling and simulation, systems biology, genetic epidemiology
LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology: cell biology, cell physiology, signal transduction, organogenesis, developmental genetics, pattern formation in plants and animals
LS4 Physiology, Pathophysiology and Endocrinology: organ physiology, pathophysiology, endocrinology, metabolism, ageing, regeneration, tumorigenesis, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome
LS5 Neurosciences and neural disorders: neurobiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, neuroimaging, systems neuroscience, neurological disorders, psychiatry
LS6 Immunity and infection: immunobiology, aetiology of immune disorders, microbiology, virology, parasitology, global and other infectious diseases, population dynamics of infectious diseases, veterinary medicine
LS7 Diagnostic tools, therapies and public health: aetiology, diagnosis and treatment of disease, public health, epidemiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, regenerative medicine, medical ethics
LS8 Evolutionary, population and environmental biology: evolution, ecology, animal behaviour, population biology, biodiversity, biogeography, marine biology, ecotoxicology, prokaryotic biology
LS9 Applied life sciences and biotechnology: agricultural, animal, fishery, forestry and food sciences; biotechnology, chemical biology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, industrial biosciences; environmental biotechnology and remediation.

Lists of ERC grants awarded by host country[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ M. Antonoyiannakis, J. Hemmelskamp and F. C. Kafatos, "The European Research Council takes flight", Cell 136, 805 (2009)
  2. ^ E.-L. Winnacker, "On Excellence through Competition", European Educational Research Journal 7, 124 (2008)
  3. ^ C.-H. Heldin, "The European Research Council – a new opportunity for European science", Nat. Rev. Mol. Cell Biol. 9, 417 (2008)
  4. ^ H. Nowotny, Frontier Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities: what does it mean, what can it mean? (PDF) 
  5. ^ "ERC calls 2013: What's new?". (registration required)
  6. ^ basic statistics for ERC funding activities 

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]