EUROPE: Major policy shift in ERC advanced grants

Over the last three years, researchers and their institutions in Europe, along with many others elsewhere, have been preparing for the announcement of the latest European Research Council research grants programme. As recently as January, ERC officials were proposing an expansion of the scheme but at a Tubitak conference in Istanbul in March this picture changed abruptly, to the alarm of those planning to apply for grants.

Since the beginning of the European Framework Research programmes 20 years ago, European scholars waited for what is now called the European Research Council grants scheme. These grants represent significant financing of basic research projects where all scientific fields are eligible and where excellence is the criterion for selection of the two scientific age groups: starting and advanced investigators.

After an intensive period of planning, the first call for proposals came in late 2007, with three rounds of selection in 2008 by 25 evaluation panels covering the three major domains of research: one for physical sciences and engineering where 114 grants were awarded, one in life sciences, 84 grants awarded, and one in social sciences and humanities, 48 contracts awarded.

As well, 29 grants went to interdisciplinary projects transferred from the three domains so the total number was 275. EUR542 million (US$770 million) was distributed to these projects and each might receive up to EUR3.5 million for interdisciplinary projects, although EUR2.5 million is the usual limit of a grant.

The grants are allocated to individuals (principal investigators-PI) rather than institutions. Nationals from around the world are eligible to apply and they have to select an institution in either the EU-27 or associated states as their host institution. It is expected the PI will remain with the original host for the duration of the project.

But ERC grants are portable and in some cases the PI may wish to move to another institution. The aim of this option is to encourage research institutions to offer constantly improving conditions to the best researchers.

The ERC will distribute EUR7.5 billion over the period 2007-2013, with an estimated 1,800 ERC Advanced Grants to be awarded. Last year, the competition was fierce with 2,167 applications filed in the three domains.

The degree of competition in the 2007-2008 round has had an impact on the application rate: the total number fell from 2,167 to 1,583 this year, a 27% decline while the success rate is expected to be 15%.

The ERC has become the strongest innovative mechanism used by the European Union for the last decade. Enthusiasm and self-confidence has spread among European scientists and interest abroad is growing.

At the conference in Istanbul in March, ERC President Professor Fotis Kafatos made an introductory speech, Frontier research through ERC grants, at the end of which he gave a strong signal on the hoped future path of the ERC programme:

"We are going to see more and more that Europe [will] again be a haven for scientists from all over the world. Currently the proportion of ERC-recruited researchers who move to Europe from overseas is about 3.3%. I would hope that in a few years this would be between 20-30% and why not in the future grow to 50%?" he said.

"The ERC is all about giving the opportunity for great minds to do great work, wherever they are from. Europe is not choosing by nationality but by excellence alone."

But then came the Tubitak conference in Turkey and the picture changed abruptly. At the first and second calls for proposals, the ERC advanced grant scheme was set at some 300 grants in 2008 and again in 2009, rising to approximately 450 in 2010 and to close on 500 in 2011. Naturally, institutional strategies were calibrated accordingly.

But, after the Turkey conference, the message now was that number of advanced grants would be held constant and that the number of starting grants would be increased. The sudden shift in policy has been deeply stressful for European institutions as they now re-orient their research strategies.

*Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of the department of research at the University of Bergen in Norway.