ERC grants skewed towards large nations and male scientists

Advanced grants awarded by the European Research Council continue to be heavily skewed towards larger European nations and senior male scientists.

The ERC has made 294 advanced grants in 19 European countries, with a total value of EUR660 million (US$870 million). Open to all scientific fields, the grants are worth up to EUR3.5 million each.

The programme has received 26,000 applications for advanced and initial grants since it started in 2007.

The UK, Germany, France and Italy play host to 176 of the grant holders (60%), but eight EU member states host none. Women scientists are awarded 12% of the grants.

For the current round, 2,284 applications were received. Success rates ranged from 14.6% in physical sciences and engineering to 13.5% in life sciences and 9.1% in social sciences and humanities. More statistics are available here.

UK institutions received 68 grants, German institutions 52, French and Italian institutions 31 each, and Swiss institutions 23. The average age of the researchers involved is about 53 years.

A total of 41 countries in Europe (the 27 EU member states and 14 associated countries such as Switzerland, Turkey and Norway) are eligible to host recipients of the ERC grants.

Out of these, 21 countries did not receive any grants, including the Baltic countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Malta and even Turkey, where the ERC in 2009 arranged a major conference with the Turkish Research Council to encourage more applicants from that country.

The institutions with the most grant holders were Oxford (12); Cambridge (10); ETH Zürich (seven); Imperial College London (six) and the Catholic University of Leuven, Tel Aviv University, Bristol University and University College London (five each).

The ERC is now also encouraging scientists from all over the world to apply for the grants, choosing a research institution in one of the 41 eligible countries as a host.

The European parliamentary committee reviewing the European research programmes has proposed a ”stairway of excellence” to elevate under-performing countries’ share of EU research allocations.

Katrien Maes, chief policy officer of the League of European Research Universities, commented: “We are looking at [the proposal] but as long as the specifics are not clear, it is difficult to comment in detail, other than it is essential that the goals of funding capacity-building in Europe are clearly defined as an independent objective and are not embedded in the next research and innovation programme.”

Research excellence should prevail as the only criterion for all EU 27 member states and other qualifying participants, she said. A significant part of the EU's capacity-building funds should be aimed at “improving research capacity, including human and other resources, large infrastructures and good governance, in the EU 12 and other qualifying regions".

Jerzy Langer, professor of physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences and former deputy minister of science, told University World News: “The ERC was conceived as a funding body for top science in Europe, aimed at offering significant attractions to do research in Europe and to reverse the transatlantic brain drain.

"But at the same time it was hoped that talent in financially weaker regions could get a possibility to gain resources hardly available locally.

“Unfortunately the latter has proved not to be working at all and, even worse, those who won their grants wished to do their winning project in the places recognised as Europe's top excellence institutions. Therefore as a byproduct an internal brain drain occurred. This is a subject of serious concern both inside and outside the ERC," Langer continued.

“My opinion is that without dedicated programmes to encourage the collaboration of excellent researchers across Europe, if possible preconditioned somewhat for the involvement of less favourable regions and gender, the situation will get worse and thus will politically endanger the future of the ERC.

“The stairway of excellence is a nice concept, but de facto only verbal. It may work, as the talents are in place, but there must be more wisdom and political will to get this type of programme implemented at a proper scale and without compromise of quality. It cannot become a second-class ERC that would finally result in deepening disparities across the EU.”

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU commissioner for research, innovation and science, said: "Supporting the very best researchers working at the frontiers of knowledge is essential for European competitiveness.

"The ERC has been a huge success in its first five years, with an ever-growing flow of research results from its investment. I have therefore proposed a major increase of the ERC budget under the EU's future research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020."

Spending on the ERC budget has increased each year, and from 2010 on it has an annual budget of more than EUR1 billion, growing to EUR1.7 billion in 2013, the last year of the 7th Framework Programme. By the end of FP7, the ERC will have awarded around 5,000 grants, with the total budget allocated to grants being EUR7.5 billion.

The ERC grant programme has a 71% increase in its proposed budget for Horizon 2020.