European Research Council wants more African grant-seekers

Too few African scholars are applying for research grants through the European Research Council (ERC), according to Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the council's president.

Visiting Nairobi, Kenya last month with representatives of the European Union to champion research cooperation and partnerships in research and innovation between Europe and Africa, Bourguignon said although he was impressed by the drive of African scientists, he lamented the small number of African applicants seeking the EU grants compared with the rest of the world.

“I feel that the number of Africans who receive the ERC grants is too small,” he said during a day-long meeting at the African Academy of Sciences on 20 March.

“Probably, part of the problem is that the programme is not so well known, and that is partly the purpose of my visit,” the France-born mathematician told University World News.

Frontier research

Established by the EU in 2007, the ERC is Europe’s premier funding organisation that promotes excellent frontier research. Through council grants, top researchers from around the world can receive grants in Europe while being able to keep ties with their home institution.

To date, the ERC has funded around 9,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers. Its grants are open to talented scholars of any nationality and estimates show that around 17% of ERC-funded team members are non-European nationals.

Bourguignon said researchers still face challenges working in Africa.

“If you just look at the very significant figure … what is the percentage of GDP going to research?” he said, alluding to funding allocated to research in most African countries.

“I know the working conditions [in Africa] are very different,” he said.

“Some countries have decent working conditions for researchers, but some others don’t,” he said, noting that “some countries are struggling with other issues and that research is not a priority” to them.

Africa – Lowest number of grant applications

According to figures obtained from ERC, Africa had the lowest number of grant applications between 2014 and 2018.

To date, only 12 Africans have received an ERC grant and include recipients from Morocco, South Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon and Egypt.

Professor Felix Dakora, president of the African Academy of Sciences, welcomed the partnership between Europe and Africa.

Highlighting the unique role played by the African Academy of Sciences, founded in 1985 as a pan-African scientific institution that promotes research partnerships and development in Africa, he said: “As we know today, there’s no organisation or country that can do it alone, so we see prospects for our collaboration with the ERC.”

According to officials, research teams led by ERC-grantees frequently host non-European scientists and team members can be based outside Europe.

Under one of the ERC funding schemes, the Synergy Grants, grantees can perform research outside Europe.

From laboratory to market

The ERC is part of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation scheme, and accounts for nearly one fifth of the programme’s €80 billion (US$90 billion) budget. The initiative aims at achieving more breakthroughs and discoveries by taking great ideas from the laboratory to market.

While in Nairobi, Bourguignon took part in the Science Programme Committee meeting of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), a platform connecting science, society and policy in Africa. The NEF will take place in Nairobi in March 2020.

In addition to ERC grants, Horizon 2020 offers a number of further opportunities for international and African researcher participation, which were presented to the more than 50 researchers in attendance at the event in Nairobi.

Already, some 310 projects involving researchers from African Union countries have been funded to a total of €123 million (US$138 million). With 47 projects funded, Kenya is the third most successful African country under Horizon 2020 after South Africa (126 projects) and Morocco (50 projects).

The main thematic areas of EU-African cooperation under Horizon 2020 are environment, food, ICT and health.

Stefano A Dejak, EU ambassador to Kenya, said science and technology were key components of the Africa-EU partnership.

“The aim is to contribute to sustainable development and boost employment, competitiveness and growth,” he said, adding that Kenya is widely regarded as a regional tech and innovation hub.