ERC – a Council with a Mission: Attracting Top Brains to Europe

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As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, the European Research Council (ERC) has grown into what many see as a success story for Europe. Established in 2007, its impact on top scientists, as well as on national research systems, has been significant. By offering substantial funding for the best brains – and doing so with minimal bureaucracy – the Council has to some extent transformed the research scene in Europe. Yet, there are still challenges ahead for the five-year-old, which has just launched an ambitious global campaign to attract more scientists to Europe from around the world


Facts and Figures:

• Budget: €7.5 billion (2007-2013)

• Budget year 2013: ca. €1.8 billion

To date:
• Grantees funded: over 2,500
• Submissions: over 35,000
• Budget allocated: ca. €4.2 billion
• Calls for proposals: 8 closed and 3 ongoing

ERC President:
Prof. Helga Nowotny
ERC Secretary-General:
Prof. Donald B. Dingwell
Headquarters: Brussels, Belgium

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / Letter from Brussels

Established under the European Union's seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7), the ERC has a total budget of €7.5 billion for 2007-2013 to fund "frontier research" in all disciplines, based solely on excellence. No thematic or geographical criteria are involved. Some have described the ERC as a "Champion's League" in the field of science, creating for the first time a real competition between the cream of the crop at the European level. By means of flexible, substantial grants, scientists – regardless of their nationality or age – receive support to pursue their most creative ideas to stimulate innovation.

Funding "blue sky" research is at the heart of the ERC's mission, which means that the outcomes are not easily predictable; but by encouraging "high-risk/high-gain" projects at the frontiers of knowledge, more breakthroughs and discoveries are likely to happen. With a bottom-up approach, the ERC awards grants directly to individual researchers, giving them the flexibility to move from one European host institution to another, if necessary, while keeping their funding. The grants have given a real boost to young researchers in particular, enabling them to gain independence early on.

So far, over 2,500 first-class scientists have been supported by ERC grants across Europe for a total of €4.2 billion. The budget for 2013 is nearly €1.8 billion; new calls for proposals will open in a few months.

Putting the ERC on the world map – ERC Goes Global

The ERC's funding is open to researchers from anywhere on the globe, provided that they spend at least half of their research time in Europe. This message needs to be spread more widely, which is why – just in time for its fifth anniversary – the ERC has kick-started a new campaign "ERC goes Global." Its goal is to attract more top scientists, whether non-Europeans or Europeans based overseas, to come to Europe for their research.

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The worldwide campaign that runs until the end of 2013 will bring the ERC's new secretary-general, Prof. Donald Dingwell, to over 15 countries to increase awareness among researchers of the ERC funding opportunities. After a first stop in Canada in February, he visited South Africa in March; his tour will continue to Latin America, Russia, Ukraine, Asia and, towards the end of the year, to Mexico and the West Coast of the US.

What's in it?

With grants distributed in three broad domains – life sciences, social sciences and humanities, and physical sciences and engineering – ERC projects cover a broad spectrum of topics: from tracing new forms of life on different planets and coping with the economic crises to tackling diseases and studying migrations of ethnical minorities from a historical perspective.

Nowotny Helga ERC at 5 smallThe ERC has established two main funding schemes, which are fairly competitive; the average success rate is around 12 percent. The process of evaluating proposals is based on international peer review. "Advanced Grants" are targeted at scientifically independent researchers with an excellent track record, who are already leaders in their respective domains. The grants available for developing their unconventional and ambitious projects may be as large as €3.5 million over a period up to five years.

For less experienced scientists in the earlier stages of their careers, but whose academic track already shows great promise, the ERC offers "Starting Grants". Funding of up to €2 million for a maximum of five years is enabling young talent to develop into the next generation of research leaders.

Those interested in applying should stay tuned for the opening of the next calls for proposals, which will include some changes, expected to be posted on the ERC Web site in July.

What's new?

In addition to its two core funding schemes, the ERC launched (on a pilot basis) a new grant scheme last year: "ERC Synergy." This grant offers up to €15 million for a period of six years to small groups of two to four researchers working together on exceptional projects. The initiative allows leading scientists to bring together complementary skills and knowledge and, jointly, to address research problems in an innovative way. ERC Synergy grants are designed to encourage new methods and productive lines of inquiry, including unconventional approaches at the interface between established disciplines.

Since last year, the ERC is also supporting some of its grantees in order to bridge the gap between their "blue sky" research and commercialization of their findings, helping to bring new solutions onto the market. A "Proof of Concept" grant can be worth up to €150,000.

Five-year celebration

Group Photo ERC at 5 smallWith a blend of science, entertainment, and debate on excellence in research, the ERC celebrated this March its five-year milestone with an event in the city of its headquarters, Brussels (Belgium). This was an opportunity to take stock of the achievements of the first investigator-driven, pan-European agency for funding excellence in research. Alongside a string of high-level speakers, ERC grantees showcased their research in a broad range of fields, reflecting the variety of ingenious and cutting-edge research funded by the ERC to date.

The anniversary celebration was also an occasion for scientists and policy makers to express their opinions on research and the ERC itself. The European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in a video message, confirmed his strong personal commitment to the ERC, which he sees as "a beacon for excellence not only in Europe." ERC President Helga Nowotny underlined the importance of excellence in research and assured the audience that this will remain a core value of the ERC, whose support of top talent will stimulate innovation and contribute to new discoveries.

For the coming research and innovation program, Horizon 2020, the European Commission has proposed a substantial increase in the ERC budget, nearly doubling it to around €13 billion. Provided that the European Parliament and Member States accept this budget boost, even more top talent from Europe and from further afield will receive ERC support.