Top institutions dominate in fierce ERC grant battle

After seven years, the European Research Council, or ERC, grant scheme has become a ‘gold standard’ for science in Europe, and the ‘jewel in the crown’ for 4,556 recipients in the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7 (2007-13).

But the 40,000 applicants that were rejected are increasingly frustrated with their experience with the ERC. The “Matthew effect” that “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance” prevails.

The European Research Council last month published the report ERC Funding Activities 2007-2013: Key facts, patterns and trends, which is a veritable mine of information. The main message from the 123-page publication is that the ERC is very, very competitive, and that some stakeholders positioned themselves more favourably in the programme.

The European Union Ideas programme, to which the ERC belongs, was conceived to support frontier research in Europe, through competitive, investigator-driven grants of a significant size.

The report describes a success story on several levels, not least the work in setting up and managing such a large volume of applications, appointing thousands of evaluators to screen close to 45,000 project applications.

The ERC was responsible for 15% of the total FP7 budget, representing a significant departure from previous research funding mechanisms in the European Commission, inventing new sub-programmes of the ERC along the way.

During the lifetime of FP7, there were 18 calls for proposals for ERC grants: six each for starting and advanced grants; three for ‘proof-of-concept’ from 2011; two for synergy grants; and one for consolidator grants in 2013.

Originally the ERC had planned a 50:50 split between advanced grants and starting grants, but the final distribution shows 60% to starting or consolidator grants and 40% to the three other sub-programmes. The largest number of applications was for starting grants, where a massive 9,167 were submitted for the first call for proposals in 2007.

In total, 44,867 applications were submitted to the ERC: 2,332 starting grants, or StGs, were awarded of which 313 were consolidator grants, or CoGs, 1,709 advanced grants, or AGs, 24 synergy grants, and 178 proof-of-concept grants to take previously awarded ERC projects closer to the market. The success rate averaged around 10%, with the lowest being for synergy grants at 2.1%.

In all, a total of €7.5 billion (US$8 billion), or 15% of the FP7 budget, was distributed to ERC grant holders.

On average, the grant size was €1.48 million for starting grants, €1.921 million for consolidator grants, and €2.4 million for advanced grants.

It is important to note that the costing of the projects did not influence the evaluation outcome. On the contrary, the evaluation process seemed to marginally favour higher cost projects.

The most negative information in the report is that not all A-scored proposals were funded, only between 67% and 73%, which is not a good message for potential applicants.

Large country dominance

All EU-28 countries except Lithuania, Malta and Romania have hosted ERC grant holders.

The highest number of applications was sent in from Italy (15%); Germany (12%) and the United Kingdom (10.6%).

At the application stage, five countries hosted about two-thirds of all ERC funded proposals under the StG, CoG and AG schemes: 22.1% of all ERC grants were awarded to applicants supported by research organisations located in the UK, 13.9% in Germany, 13% in France, 8.4% in the Netherlands, and 7.2% in Switzerland.

Seventeen per cent of the PhDs and post-doctoral researchers in ERC teams recruited by the ERC grant (2,700 during FP7) were recruited from outside Europe, the largest number coming from China, the United States and India.

Without counting countries of nationality with none or very few grantees, the highest success rates were attained by applicants from non-EU nationalities, namely the Swiss (18.2%), Israeli (17.5%) and US (16.7%).

Some 68% of the grantees were hosted in the same country as their nationality, with 80% of all Israeli, British, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and French grantees hosted nationally, while all grantees from Lithuania, Luxembourg, Romania and Serbia were hosted by organisations in foreign countries.

The top proportion of foreign national grantees was hosted in Switzerland (74%) and Austria (70%). The largest number of ERC grantees from one country taking their grant to another country was nationals from Germany (250), Italy (178), USA (140), France (81), the Netherlands (72) and the UK (68).

The highest number of women grantees was from Romania (50%), Croatia (39%) and Portugal (37%), and the lowest proportion of women was from Norway (6.3%), Hungary (8.4%), Denmark (12.8%) and Sweden (13%).

Panel differences

ERC grant applications are evaluated by 25 panels across three thematic fields. Of these the lowest participation of women was in the panel “fundamental constituent matter” with 9%, and in “mathematics” with 9.7% being female grant holders. The highest proportion of women was found in “culture and cultural production” (44%), in “values, institutions, beliefs and behaviour” (42%), and in the “study of the human past” (33.8%).

The panels receiving the highest proportion of evaluated applications were “computer science and informatics”, “condensed matter physics” and “institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour”, and the panel with the least number of applications and funded projects was “environment and society”.

The average age of grant holders on the date of the closing of the calls in 2013 was 36.9 years old for starting or consolidator grants, 52.5 years old for advanced grants, and 40 years old for consolidator grants.

Top performing institutions and regions

Altogether more than 600 institutions in 30 countries have hosted ERC grantees, but 41% or 1,779 grants were awarded to the top 31 institutions.

The top recipients were CNRS in France (200), the Max Planck Institutes (128), the University of Cambridge (126), the University of Oxford (119), University College London (86), ETH Zürich (85), and the Weizmann Institute of Science (78).

The ten micro-regions of Paris, West or Inner London, Munich, Cambridgeshire, Zürich, Oxfordshire, Barcelona, Greater Amsterdam, the Swiss Canton of Vaud (which encompasses the city of Lausanne) and Madrid alone account for 38% of the total grants under the StG, CoG and AG schemes.

This means that €2.9 billion of the ERC total grant scheme was hosted in these regions, which are the most developed and strongest research regions in Europe.

Application patterns

Table 7.02 in the report lists the number of submitted proposals in the top 100 host institutions and contains some stunning statistics on the application patterns.

For example, the University of Oslo submitted 229 applications and received 22 grants; Uppsala University submitted 253 applications and received 25; Stockholm University submitted 186 and received 13; and the University of Copenhagen submitted 326 and received 28.

These four Nordic universities on the top 100 list therefore submitted 994 applications and received a total of 88 ERC grants, a success rate of just under 8.5%.

Of these 100 top performing institutions with greater success rates, the Netherlands Cancer Institute submitted 29 applications and received 11 grants; the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Spain submitted 33 and received 13; the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Heidelberg submitted 49 and received 17; and ETH Zürich submitted 272 and received 85. Together these four institutions submitted 383 applications and received 126 grants, achieving a success rate of 38.5%.

This clearly illustrates the trend towards oversubscription of applications in the ERC programme, notably by the larger universities.