Why have Israeli scientists won so many ERC grants?

On 22 April a delegation from the European Union visited Israel to celebrate 25 years of research and innovation (R&I) collaboration.

The event, attended by European ambassadors, Israeli government officials and R&I stakeholders, marked a quarter century of growing R&I ties that started when Israel became associated to the Fourth EU Framework Programme for Research in 1996.

“Since then, about 5,000 research contracts [have been] signed as a part of Israeli participation and more than 6,000 participants and about 1,000 SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] have joined the cooperation in these projects with a total support from the EU of €2.5 billion [US$3 billion],” Deputy Director-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission Signe Ratso said in a message screened at the event.

EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret said in his remarks that Israel was one of most successful non-EU participants in the framework of Horizon 2020, where 1,600 Israel-based projects received a total of €1.36 billion in funding.

The Israel Horizon 2020 country profile published by the European Commission shows that 1,963 organisations have been involved in Horizon 2020 projects, out of 14,745 applications, with a 12.4% success rate.

The ‘jewel in the crown’ of Israeli participation in the Horizon 2020 programme is in the European Research Council (ERC) programme, which aims at encouraging frontier research in Europe across all fields on the basis of scientific excellence.

Via the ERC, 440 Israeli ERC principal investigators have received €644.7 million in support. This is high, even though it falls below the amount received by the UK (€2.17 billion), the Netherlands (€1.08 billion) and Switzerland (€922 million) from the ERC programme in Horizon 2020.

While the average success rate in the ERC programme was 11%, Israel (with a population of 9.1 million) had an 18% success rate, surpassed only by Switzerland (population 8.5 million) with 22%.

Professor Michal Sharon of the department of biomolecular sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, who received two ERC grants, told University World News: “This is what I think about the Israeli success in ERC grants: The ‘start-up nation’ attitude that educates Israelis for innovation and risk-taking fits well with the scope of the ERC mission and enables Israeli scientists to write and then [carry out] cutting-edge science, in line with the ERC vision.”

Israeli success has generated interest among Nordic ERC grant-holders and stakeholders as a potential role model of how smaller countries can punch above their weight in science.

The Danish research attaché in Israel, Ann-Christina Lange, in Tel Aviv in a blog on 3 May compared the Danish and the Israeli take-home awards in Horizon 2020 with the headline: “What are the Israelis so good at?”

Of all the parts of Horizon 2020, Israel is performing strongest in the ERC programme, receiving €644 million versus Denmark (with a 5.8 million population) – which is also a good performer – which received €312 million.

Lange attributes the Israeli success to four factors.

First, there is little research money available for basic research in Israel compared to Denmark, so Israeli researchers are hungry for external research funding.

Second, Israeli institutions are internationally ‘fishing for talent’ instead of announcing their positions locally, notably at elite institutions (with the Weizmann Institute, in particular, being the strongest Israeli Horizon 2020 performer, drawing in €205 million in 2020).

Also, Israel has funded many highly talented young researchers to train in the United States, who are now coming back, she argued.

Last, but not least, she claims Israeli researchers are not only excellent researchers, they are also good at something she says is difficult to define but describes as an excellent “story-telling-capability”. This gives them the edge in being able to provide a “knife-edge pitch” time and again that generates enthusiasm among the evaluators in Brussels, in particular via the oral presentations that are used in ERC starting and consolidator grants.

She said that by comparison the modest Danes need to sharpen their ability and learn new ways to present their research.

Kenneth Hugdahl, professor in biological psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, who has twice received an ERC advanced grant told University World News he is not convinced that being hungry for funds is a factor.

“We are all exposed to ‘too little research money available’. This is [the same] for all researchers in all countries – I have never met a colleague who has not complained about too little money available for research in ‘my country’. Danish scientists are competing as hard as others.”

But he agrees that attracting top talent – which he says is no different than the top soccer teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid buying the world’s best players – and keeping the message simple and telling a good story in applications are important factors in ERC success. He said research councils could put greater emphasis on story-telling courses and instructions for applicants.

“‘Keep it simple and tell a story’ has always been my mantra when writing applications,” he said.

Does money talk?

Comparative data on salaries to researchers is difficult to find, but back in 2007 the European Commission published an overview of salaries in Europe based on an online survey.

When they averaged weighted yearly salaries per country adjusting for living cost levels based on 2006 data, they found Switzerland on top with €82,725, followed by Luxembourg (€63,865), Austria (€62,406), Ireland (€62,406) and Denmark (€61,356).

Israel, however, was listed in lowly 16th position with €42,502, about half of the level in Switzerland. This could partly explain why Switzerland is on top of the ERC (per million inhabitants) with 523 ERC principal investigators in Horizon 2020.

Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group in Stockholm, Sweden, who in 2019 participated in an evaluation of Norwegian barriers towards participating in the ERC programme, told University World News Lange’s explanations are valid.

“It may very well be that researchers in Denmark, as in other Scandinavian countries with good domestic research funding opportunities, are less keen to seek funding opportunities abroad.

“But there is one additional success factor that was most apparent in the investigation from 2018–19 of Norwegian researchers’ applications to the ERC, and that is the number of attempts to apply. The strongest success factor of all was that those who got an ERC grant had applied before, often several times.

“So, persistence and adaptation to the ERC format are a big part of the key. Maybe the Israeli researchers are also persistent and adaptive.”

Dan Andrée, who was the Brussels representative for Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, told University World News that Israel has landed €645 million in ERC grants, and Sweden (with a population of 10.2 million) has received €429 million “which is rather good”, but, as in Denmark, national funding is high in Sweden and because ERC grants are gaining in prestige, the Swedish Research Council is also offering assistance.

Emmanuel Babatunde, who is senior advisor at the research division at the University of Bergen in Norway, having been an advisor for scientists writing applications to the EU research programmes and an evaluator of applications in Brussels, told University World News: “The idea of selling and marketing one’s proposal and telling a good story around it is an American/British thing not common in Scandinavia. I agree with Professor Hugdahl that this needs to be taught and prioritised, especially in Norwegian universities.”

He said the tactic of ‘fishing’ for excellent researchers has been known for some time.

“The Swiss were good at it and performed highly at the ERC levels,” he said. But “recruitments at an earlier level for example, through the MSCA [Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions] fellowship programmes are also key to later successes in the ERC programme. Most post-doctoral fellows from the MSCA programme end up as successful ERC grantees.”

In 2019, Daniel Zajfman, physicist and then president of the Weizmann Institute, said the serial winning of hugely competitive ERC grants by scientists in his institute, Israel’s most successful in the ERC, was down to recruiting the right individuals and supporting them with full funding.

“You focus all your funding on individuals; the ones who can move the needle on an issue,” Zajfman told Science Business. “We give our researchers full labs and full funding from day one, and total independence to work. They don’t have to report to anyone; they don’t have a boss.”

As a result, they have to take the all the pressure and that is “very valuable”, he said. “You have to deliver; you can’t blame it on anyone else. Of course, there will be failures, but more often than not the approach delivers.”

Associate Professor Dror Seliktar of the faculty of biomedical engineering at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, who has been an evaluator for ERC consolidator grants in Panel PE8 (Product and Processes Engineering), told University World News that he expects that “a large portion of the enhanced success rate of Israeli researchers is attributed to principal investigator or PI grant recipients who were awarded either starting grants or consolidator grants”, although he hasn’t seen data to prove it.

Early career differences

He says there are two factors that may be different between Israeli and European PIs at the earliest stages of their academic career.

First, almost all Israelis PIs are required to spend a significant amount of their career training abroad if they want to return to a faculty position at a research university in Israel. This training is mainly in the form of a post-doctoral fellowship, although some Israelis travel abroad for their doctoral training, he says.

“Moreover, because of limited faculty positions available in Israel, the Israeli research universities can be highly selective when choosing from a large pool of applicants, often preferring those researchers who spent time at some of the best research universities in Europe and the US.

“The fact that almost all of the new faculty members arriving in Israel each year were trained in places like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Imperial College [London], Cambridge, etc, can be a significant advantage when preparing their ERC starting grant applications.

The second difference has to do with language, as both ERC starting and consolidator grants require an interview stage where presenting the project has to be done in the English language.

“Although Israelis are fluent in English from a very early age, many European countries can also claim the same for their population, so in and of itself this may not differentiate the Israeli applicants,” he says.

“However, Israelis are definitely more comfortable studying abroad in English-speaking countries like the US and the UK, so most Israeli PIs spend several years as a post-doc in an English-speaking environment. This helps the Israeli PIs to sharpen their presentation skills in the English language.

“When they return to Israel, these enhanced skills may very well give them a slight advantage over their European colleagues when reaching the interview stages of the ERC grant review.”

Potential for paradigm shifts is key

However, Yoram Bar-Zeev, managing director of Enspire Science, Tel Aviv, which has reviewed and supported thousands of ERC project ideas and applicants since 2007 – and has created a publicly available knowledge base of articles and guides to ERC applications – warned that “attending to such factors alone cannot turn a research proposal into a highly competitive ERC grant (unlike in many other grants)”.

He said a highly competitive ERC research project should have a daring (high risk), conceptual, non-incremental, novel scientific research idea that has the potential of reaching significant scientific breakthroughs and leading to paradigm shifts (high gain).

“Many find these key ERC requirements elusive and counter-intuitive, resulting eventually in failure with ERC [applications].”

He says, as Sharon mentions: “There is something in the Israeli educational environment that drives researchers to dare and think in a more risky manner, and this is definitely one of the things that I can pinpoint here as well. However, this approach is not limited nor unique to Israelis, of course.

“Still, the overall trend of successful Israeli ERC applicants (since the early days of the ERC) offering risk-taking approaches, combined with the fact that Israel is a relatively small country with a relatively small scientific community, has an ongoing impact in that regard.

“This combination led to an undocumented local accumulation of proven knowledge about how to win ERC grants, especially about the undocumented, elusive, counter-intuitive winning factors.”