SWITZERLAND: Polytechnique tops ERC grants

Even if the final results of the 2009 European Research Council Starting grants selection has yet to be published, the EPFL in Lausanne in Switzerland has reported that eight such grants have been awarded to young staff members out of 219 on the ERC shortlisted candidates.

These grants are worth up to EUR2 million for starters (two to nine years after PhD) and up to EUR2.5 million for advanced grants.

The standing of the EPFL results is best illustrated by the fact that the whole of Scandinavia has 18 such grants among the finalist selected, Poland has two, Greece two, all three Baltic countries one and Turkey zero. Italy received 15 grants out of 434 applications while the UK tops the list with 41 grants out of 347 applications.

In 2007, the ERC was flooded with 9,167 starting grants applications and was only able to fund 300. In 2009, the number of applications dropped 73% when 2,503 young scientists applied.

The next institution on the list of top performers in the advanced grants selection was the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel with eight while Oxford and Imperial College, London were next with seven each. In the life science domain, EPFL was the top performer, holding five out of 84 grants.

Now in 2009, with another eight successful grants shortly to be announced by the ERC, the EPFL is holding a portfolio of 10 starting grants and 11 advanced grants. The results of the 2009 selections of advanced grants will be known first at the end of November when the EPFL could gather even more successes.

EPFL scholars are active in all scientific domains, even with a project on the history of cement by Professor Roberto Garganini, The surface of cement and reinforced concrete. A history of the formworks and processing of the surface, 1870- 2008.

EPFL calculates the value of these grants to total EUR40 million this year. The Polytechnique in the French-speaking part of Switzerland is one of the most international universities in the world.

It has a staff of 3,200 scientists and technicians from more than 80 nations. It says their extraordinary achievement is the result of "the dynamism of the tenure track system initiated a few years ago".

This TT-mechanism has relevance today when young scholars are working in temporary positions for longer periods of their working lives. Since 2004, EPFL has recruited 52 TT staff members, 11 women and 38 foreigners.

The candidates are almost always recruited from outside the institution and on average, they are 34 years old. They are appointed associate professors after six-seven years but have to wait another six years before being named a full professor.

EPFL will probably advance on the already strong placement on the international university ranking lists. Its President, Professor Patrick Aebischer, could probably be credited for some of this extraordinary achievement during his leadership since 1999.