Some Nobel winners fail European Research Council cut

A number of Nobel prize holders have failed to win a European Research Council (ERC) grant because their project proposals were not good enough, ERC President Helga Nowotny (pictured) told a conference held in Barcelona last week to mark the council’s five years of operation.

The title of the conference, which took place on 5 November at the University of Pampeu Fabra, was “Enhancing the Attractiveness of European Universities as a Destination for World-Class Research”.

Nowotny (pictured) remarked that she would have added the subtitle “In times of austerity”.

She told 300 participants from 15 countries that the world was experiencing unprecedented global challenges for research and that the competition for talent was here to stay.

In 15 years, research and development (R&D) funding in the world had doubled, Nowotny added, and today represented US$1.4 trillion in investments.

As a result of the ERC, institutions had opened up internationally, notably in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, while Israel and The Netherlands were also doing exceptionally well in council grant competitions.

Survey on ERC success

An ERC survey demonstrated that the institutions succeeding at ERC level had started their international recruitment at PhD and masters level some time ago. In the UK, 49% of the ERC grant holders were of non-British nationality.

Nowotny said the survey asked 650 ERC grant holders on what conditions they were willing to go back to their home country.

Two answers dominated: firstly, good working conditions with access to scientific infrastructure; and, secondly, transparent recruitment procedures.

The ERC has now awarded 3,200 grants to scientists in more than 500 institutions in 27 countries in Europe, totalling a €5 billion (US$6.4 billion) investment. Currently 15,000 young researchers, mainly postdoctoral and PhD students, are working in teams with these recipients of awards.

However, 50% of the ERC grants recipients are concentrated in 50 European host universities.

Nowotny confirmed the ERC strategy of targeting scientific excellence. She was glad that several Nobel laureates had received an ERC grant before they received their prizes, and that they had acknowledged the role of the ERC in the progress of their research.

It was notable, she said, that Italy and Germany in particular were successful in securing ERC starting grants for their nationals hosted in another European country. For Italy, this could be attributed to a national research system that is functioning sub-optimally.

But for Germany, the explanation could be a too-rigid hierarchical structure coupled with an outdated system, which meant people were getting too old before embarking on an independent scientific career. “The young are voting with their feet and go away,” Nowotny said.

She asked how European universities could prepare themselves for participation in the ERC and recommended that they use current grant holders as mentors, and progress towards early independence of young scientists.

Professor Carmen Vela Olmo, Spain’s secretary of state for R&D and innovation, said ministries were doing what they could to avoid hitting research too hard during the current time of government budget reductions, including trying to keep up the level of operations on national programmes complementary to the ERC

The host University of Pampeu Fabra has 34 ERC grants. It has 1% of Spanish research resources and 20% of the ERC grants hosted at Spanish institutions. Rector Josep Joan Moreso said this placed the university among the 20 high-performing universities in Europe in the ERC programme.

Professor Andreu Mas Colell, Catalan minister of economy and knowledge and secretary general of ERC in 2009-10, said the council was “transforming universities from Portugal to Finland” and that it was essential in this time of crisis to open up for reforms and effective governance at universities.

He said that in the priority work of attracting more scientists from outside Europe, “visas and entry requirements procedures leave room for improvements”.


A number of recommendations for attracting the best researchers from outside the EU, based on the experiences of four host universities, included:
  • • Act proactively.
  • • Work out a package including salary, pension rights, work options for family and kindergarten options.
  • • Identify other attractive factors such as quality of life, welfare provisions and access to top-talented young researchers for team members.
  • • Keep red tape to a minimum.
  • • Work out a time-efficient and flexible system of communication with potential ERC applicants in the preparatory phase and an effective decision system when they have received a grant offer.
One consequence of the ERC programme was that it had become difficult to get an associate professorship without having an ERC grant, said Professor Benoit Deveaud-Plédran, dean for research at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

He added that an institutional strategy must be sensitive to rewarding research efforts: “In France today I will not be rewarded for taking a PhD degree compared to my colleagues going into research directly after a masters degree. In Switzerland we are honoured with a 20% wage bonus for having taken a PhD degree.”

Conference background papers and presentations may be seen here.

* Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of research management at the University of Bergen and is currently working with the ERC programme at UiB, hosting seven ERC grantees.