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European Research Council Provides Public Funding for Research & Innovation

On Wednesday, 16 May 2018, the President of the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, gave an open lecture at HSE on ‘Public funding for research & innovation: The experience of the European Research Council’. The lecture was organized by HSE together with the Delegation of the European Union to the Russian Federation.

At the lecture, Professor Bourguignon explained the background to the ERC, its strategy, and how it caters to scientists all over the world – not just in Europe.

Why Create an ERC?

The European Research Council was created in 2007 under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7, 2007-2013). Its aim is to support and develop the creativity and excellence of European frontier research. Research grants are highly sought after, internationally recognized and granted on the basis of peer review.

Why create an ERC from a policy point of view? According to Professor Bourguignon, Europe as a whole is producing one third of new knowledge, however there is still a need to stimulate creativity and dynamism in this area. ‘We have created a process to provide the means and support to younger people, that is, to support the emergence of research leaders and to improve the career prospects of early-stage researchers,’ explained the professor. ‘And, finally, we wanted to create something that previously didn’t exist in European countries – a kind of benchmark for research quality and research evaluation’. This benchmark acts to provide consistency across the very different systems used by various countries in research and innovation.

ERC Strategy

The ERC provides support for individual scientists. The peer review of the projects is very global – 50% of evaluators are outside Europe. Projects can last up to five years and there are no pre-determined fields. Funding can also be granted to projects in the social sciences and humanities as well as interdisciplinary studies.

There have been 2 consecutive framework programmes of the European Union that have included the ERC. The first ran from 2007 to 2013 and the second began in 2014 and will run until 2020. It is aptly titled ‘Horizon 2020’. ‘The framework is made up of 3 pillars, that is, three areas with different foci. The first pillar is 'Excellent Science' and this is what the ERC belongs to’, explained Professor Bourguignon. The total budget allocated to the ERC for Horizon 2020 amounts to € 13.1 billion.

The Scientific Council, headed by Professor Bourguignon, is the ERC's governing body and defines the funding strategy and frameworks. ‘The council consists of 22 people from 22 countries’, he said. ‘Its role is to decide how to divide the money it receives, as well as how to choose the evaluators. Of course, this can’t be done without the support of many people working in the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA)’. The agency implements the ERC strategy as set by the Scientific Council and is in charge of the day-to-day grant administration.

‘It should be said that the scientists on the council don’t represent their countries as such – they are members of the council because of their scientific qualifications,’ stressed Professor Bourguignon. ‘Of the 22, nine are women. This is an excellent ratio, considering that the ratio of women working in science globally is actually much smaller.’

Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon gave an open lecture at HSE

Different Grants for Different Stages

‘Our scheme subdivided into 3 different areas’, explained the professor. ‘We did this in order to be able to better compare scientists at different levels, for example, comparing a scientist who finished their PhD two years ago with a scientist who finished their PhD 20 years ago. These 3 schemes are very similar in the way they are run, except that they are available to individuals at different stages.’

ERC Starting Grant

Starting grants are intended for talented early-career scientists who have already produced excellent supervised work, are ready to work independently and show potential to be a research leader. Applicants can be of any nationality with 2 to 7 years of experience since completion of their PhD. They should have a scientific track record showing great promise and, of course, an excellent research proposal. Here, researchers can request € 1.5 million for 5 years which, according to Professor Bourguignon, is substantial for this level.

ERC Consolidator Grant

Researchers of any nationality with 7 to 12 years of experience since the completion of their PhD can apply for a Consolidator grant.  Applicants for this grant are seeking to establish themselves as independent researchers by putting together a research team and continuing to develop a successful career in Europe. They should have a strong track record of achievements and a promising research proposal. Researchers can receive up to € 2 million for a period of 5 years.

ERC Advanced Grant

These grants are intended for leading principal investigators who are seeking funding for ground-breaking, high-risk projects. Applicants are expected to be active researchers who have an excellent track-record of research achievements over the last 10 years. These scientists, referred to as ‘Principal Investigators’, should also be exceptional leaders in terms of originality and significance of their research. In this case, there is no criterium regarding academic requirements of the applicant. This grant is the most substantial at a value of up to € 2.5 million for a period of 5 years. A further € 1 million can be granted to cover costs around moving location or purchasing equipment.

ERC Proof of Concept Grant

Those scientists who have already received an ERC grant and want to explore the commercial potential of their project can apply for an ERC Proof of Concept Grant. These grants are valued at up to €150 000 for a period of 18 months. Obviously, the applicant must be able to convince evaluators that there is a strong link between the idea to be taken to proof of concept and the ERC research project.

Promoting Interdisciplinarity with Synergy Grants

ERC Synergy grants were introduced in 2012 and 2013. ‘We wanted to encourage interdisciplinarity, and, for this purpose, Synergy grants were created. Initially, they were not very successful’, admitted the professor. ‘But ERC began to explore the concept of Synergy grants in more detail, in order to figure out what wasn’t working well. We set up a task force to visit the various projects to get more of an idea of what stages the 24 projects, which had been awarded grants, were at’, said Professor Bourguignon. ‘We came to the conclusion unanimously that it was, in itself, an excellent idea to provide these grants. We subsequently made changes to improve our methodology and ensure a more efficient process.’

Proposals are evaluated on the sole criterion of scientific excellence which, in the case the ERC Synergy Grants, takes on the additional meaning of outstanding intrinsic synergetic effect. These grants support projects carried out by a group of two to four individual researchers. Researchers of any nationality can be employed as team members. ‘It is also possible to have one or more team members located in a third country’, noted Professor Bourguignon.

Opportunities for Non-Europeans

Thankfully, researchers from anywhere in the world can apply for ERC grants – the only stipulation is that their research be carried out in an EU Member State or Associated Country. ‘The number of nationalities of scientists funded is 74, which is much more than the number of European countries. This is very important for us’, said Professor Bourguignon. ERC grants are becoming more and more internationally recognised as awards for scientific excellence and so interest from scientists outside the EU is constantly increasing.

If a scientist is willing to move to Europe (EU Member State or Associated Country), they can apply for additional funding. This means the individual can receive €2 million for a Starting Grant (instead of €1.5 million for those already living in Europe), €2.75 million for a Consolidator Grant (instead of €2 million) and €3.5 million for an Advanced Grant (instead of €2.5 million).

‘There are many examples where countries do not agree on a political level but where scientists in these countries are still aiming to collaborate and work together. We, as scientists, need to preserve our role of being bridges between countries’, maintained the professor.

The ERC continues to launch initiatives that encourage involvement by scientists all around the world and Russian scientists constitute a large proportion of applicants for ERC grants every year. ‘It’s not the scientists that need convincing. There is spectacular participation by Russia, not only as applicants for ERC grants but also as participants in the Erasmus Plus programme. Therefore, more resources need to be made available in order to meet the demand that is clearly there.’

Where ERC Will Take Us

ERC seeks the brightness minds and most creative researchers to advance new and ground-breaking scientific and technological discoveries. It creates opportunities to bring about new markets, industries, and social innovations of the future.

‘There are many global challenges that our knowledge-based society needs to cope with’, said Professor Bourguignon. ‘The aim of the ERC is to ensure that the European research base has the tools to meet these challenges as well as the needs of wider society’.


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