EUROPE: UK universities win most ERC grants

British institutions will benefit most from the European Research Council's distribution of 480 young researcher grants worth EUR670 million (US$924 million), just as European Union politicians are calling for research funding to be distributed more widely to build capacity.

The United Kingdom will receive nearly twice as many grant holders as the second most successful country, Germany. Cambridge University alone will receive EUR32 million.

The ERC-funded young researchers, who will receive an average of EUR1.4 million each for five years, will be hosted by 21 European countries out of 40 eligible states.

The United Kingdom will receive 124 grants, Germany 64, France 57 and The Netherlands 47. Between 21 and 28 grants each will go to Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Israel and Belgium, and 12 other countries will receive from one to 14 grants each.

The announcement coincided with calls for a change of policy to distribute more research funding to emerging European economies, rather than concentrating on the richest countries.

The European parliament's committee on industry, research and energy, or ITRE, said in a draft response to a green paper on establishing a common strategic framework for EU research and innovation funding, that money should be redistributed to build "stairways to excellence" for all member states.

The committee's rapporteur Marisa Matias of the Left group, Portugal, said in the ITRE report: "Scientifically and technologically, more advanced countries are continuing to derive greatest benefits from the European-wide programmes. For example, the 'top 50' list of recipients of FP7 funding shows that, where both academic institutions and industry are concerned, the new member states and outlying economies continue to be severely underrepresented, not to say completely excluded."

This is the case with the location of ERC grant holders. The top talented young researchers, who have an average age of 37 years, have been selected from 38 countries, with a success rate of 12% for the 4,080 applying. But among Eastern European and former Soviet Bloc countries now in the EU, Poland will receive two, and the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia one each.

There are other biases in the distribution of ERC grants: for instance, only one in five grant holders are women.

Altogether 40 European countries are eligible to host ERC grant holders. In addition to the EU27, there are the FP, or 'associated states' of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Faroe Islands, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey.

Nineteen of these countries have not succeeded in receiving a single grant holder from the fourth ERC Starting Grant Application competition. See the results here.

Among the leading hosting institutions, 12 research-intensive universities in Europe are listed. They are Cambridge University, which receives 23 grantees; Oxford with 15; University College London with 10; Imperial College with nine; University of Amsterdam with eight; Hebrew University of Jerusalem with seven; the University of Helsinki and EPFL, Lausanne, with six each; and with five grants each the universities Tor Vergata, Rome, VU Amsterdam, Manchester and Universite Catholique de Louvain.

CNRS in France will receive 22 out of 57 in France and the Max Planck institute 14 out of 64 in Germany.

The top 12 research universities will receive 100 grantees between them, 21% of the total, and an estimated EUR140 million.

The number of successful proposals with a principal investigator of British nationality has risen sharply to 57, second to Germany which has 83. This is 12% of all grants, compared to 7% in the previous call.

The ITRE report said research and innovation funds should be redistributed among more member states.

It stresses the importance of maintaining convergence policies, and asks the European Commission to build 'stairways of excellence' for under-represented states and regions in the Framework Programme by "developing appropriate instruments to intensify cooperation between member states with a strong participation and those with a weaker participation", and by substantially increase human capacity building and infrastructure in the latter.

In addition to the "stairway of excellence" mechanism to be used in the next Framework Programme, ITRE is calling for a European Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise Investment Bank to be established and project bonds to be used to support research and innovation.

The intervention of ITRE and the endorsement by the European Parliament means that during the next budget rounds for EU research for 2014-20, serious discussions could open up on the expansion of regional and structural funds for 'stairway of excellence' measures in new member states.

John Smith, Deputy Secretary General of the European University Association, said future European research and innovation policy, of which ERC is a major part, should provide funding instruments that "seek to attain both a certain necessary concentration of research capacity and a flexibility to ensure a 'level playing field' of opportunities for new research capacity building".

He said: "The ERC must be seen as a future opportunity for excellent researchers based in EU member states not yet achieving success in ERC competitions. After all, we do not know today where the brightest scientists will be borne in Europe."

But Katrien Maes, chief policy advisor of the League of European Research Universities, said: "The ERC is having a major impact on the EU research landscape, raising the status of European research on a global level and enhancing the standards of national research efforts.

"Its single-minded focus on excellent frontier research is imperative if Europe wants to have any chance of competing with the existing and emerging research powerhouses of the world."

But, she added, funding for research capacity building is equally important and mixing research excellence with capacity funding would "dilute both the excellence and the capacity imperative". She said the research and innovation budget of the EU was small and compared poorly with investments in other regions around the world.