Should the ERC be worried about its low success rate?

Could the European Research Council or ERC drown in its own success? There have been warning signals saying that when the acceptance rate for proposals drops below 10% there is a danger of undermining the legitimacy of the programme. The last advanced grant success rate in Horizon 2020, after a 42% increase in applications in 2020 compared to 2019, was around 8%.

The most significant argument for expanding the ERC part of the Horizon Europe portfolio was that up to one third of those applying for an ERC grant with the highest mark in the evaluation are not getting a contract due to a shortage of funding.

Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis who is vice-president of the ERC and is responsible for the life sciences domain, told the European Research Council Magazine: “As a member of the scientific community, I am unreservedly convinced that Europe needs ‘more ERC’. Every year, the ERC evaluates many more excellent proposals that deserve support (about 30% more) than it can eventually fund.

“This is quite disheartening to European scientists, and to those from all over the world who want to come and do research in Europe.

“Strengthening the role of the ERC as an instrument that supports research excellence across Europe is a prudent strategy towards reaping tangible societal benefits, and fortifying against unforeseen critical developments.”

University World News asked stakeholders and European Commission experts for their views on the future of the ERC given the intense competition, with a third of A-rated applications in several rounds not being funded due to a lack of funds, and the growing potential risk of the ERC drowning in its own successes.

Some do not agree that there is a problem. Dan Andrée, representative of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, in Brussels for the past two decades, told University World News that he thinks it is natural that the ERC is more competitive than national research agencies.

“The Swedish Research Council has success rates of between 15% and 20%, with an average of 18%, and the ERC should logically be lower. So 8% to 10% is probably OK,” he said.

Legitimacy at risk

But Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, who is president of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and has been an evaluator in the ERC programme, told University World News: “If available resources are increasingly outstripped by demand, we risk seeing an ERC that loses legitimacy, moving in scientists’ mind from a funding body that recognises true quality to something akin to a lottery, where high-quality research is a prerequisite for success but still not much more than a ticket with a faint chance of winning.”

He said: “I have seen several funding bodies running into this kind of difficulty. Increasing visibility, profile, popularity and demand not matched by an increase in available funds. This is certainly one reason why we fought so hard to strengthen the ERC budget the last time around. And this is why we should continue to do so.”

He discussed this issue with representatives of United States funding bodies who stated that having an acceptance rate below 15% is “morally unacceptable”, because it drains energy and creativity from scientists who could have made better use of their energy and creativity to the benefit of society.

“Solutions? We have to look at the entire ecosystem for research funding in Europe. How nation states dovetail with the ERC and other EU funding bodies in realising ambitions for a better, more equitable, more resilient and more innovative Europe,” Ottersen said.

Yoram Bar-Zeev, managing director of Enspire Science who has advised thousands of applicants to European Union research programmes, told University World News he believes the success rate will not drop to 8% in the ERC (overall), as the relevant community of applicants to the ERC is rather limited, compared to the ‘regular’ grants.

“There is a kind of correlation between the number of grants that can be awarded and the number of relevant researchers that can apply per year,” he said. “We have seen minor fluctuations throughout the years since 2007, in the range of 10%-14% (for the EU average), but in most cases it was around 11%-12% and this is rather stable.”

He said there were plans for the ERC budget to be significantly increased during Horizon Europe but then COVID-19 appeared, so the current budget is not as high as originally planned.

“Still, it is my belief that they will increase the ERC budget within two or three years from now, allowing for higher success rates.”

‘Harmful’ to fundamental knowledge drive

Professor Eystein Jansen of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research at the University of Bergen in Norway, who is a member of the ERC scientific council and an ERC grantee, told University World News he is “worried that increased application pressure and potential reduced success rates will be harmful for the ERC, but [also] for Europe’s ability to be a leading continent in driving new fundamental knowledge [which is] so critical for our capacity to transform and make our societies resilient in the post-pandemic world”.

He said the research ideas of Europe’s best minds and talents should be harvested much more than they currently are. “This calls for a stronger emphasis on frontier research, both on the national and European levels,” he said.

He said it was good that the Horizon Europe budget for the ERC ended up higher than it looked like it would for a period last year, thanks to the support of the European Parliament and the European scientific community and institutions.

“There is also an additional budget that will come from the ‘associated countries’, such as the UK, Switzerland and Israel and the EEA [European Economic Area] countries, which may alleviate some of the budget pressures and low success rates that we may fear,” he added.

Hope for stable success rates

Jansen said there are reasons to hope that success rates for the starting and consolidator grants will be about the same as they have been in the recent past, at around 13%, whereas it may be tougher for the advanced and synergy grant schemes to get to this level.

“So the situation is not necessarily as bad as it may look, and we also need to see how the proposal numbers develop over some time after the initial opening of Horizon Europe right now,” he said.

One of the potential key measures would be if excellent frontier research was supported also from national sources as part of the post-COVID restructuring, he said.

Challenge to Europe’s nations

“There are an unacceptably high number of excellent and clearly fundable A-rated proposals that the ERC with its present budgets cannot fund but which have been evaluated to be of outstanding quality by the ERC panels. If Europe’s nations took up the challenge to fund these from national restructuring funds or other sources, this would be a great boost,” Jansen said.

He said there are signs that Poland and other EU member states with relatively low numbers of ERC projects would find a way to do this, which he hoped other countries would follow.

“The ERC evaluations guarantee that these projects are of the best quality and they will create a splendid basis for further strengthening the competitiveness of these countries in future ERC calls and in Horizon Europe in general,” he said.

Koen Jonkers, editor-in-chief of the Joint Research Centre at the European Commission, told University World News the ERC scientific council had long held concerns about the low success rate in ERC calls and the high number of excellent proposals that could not be funded.

“The ERC budget has significantly increased in the new Multiannual Financial Framework and the Horizon Europe legislation also now specifies that the allocation of financial contributions from associated countries shall take into account the level of participation of legal entities of the associated countries in each part of the programme,” he said.

‘National funders must step up’

“The increase to the ERC budget, combined with this new ‘pay as you go’ principle should allow the ERC to support many more excellent researchers in the next seven years. But it is also very important that national funders provide sufficient funding for frontier research, otherwise the demand for ERC funding will become overwhelming,” Jonkers said.

He also pointed out that there were particular reasons for the low success rate in the advanced grant call in 2020 which were unlikely to be repeated.

“The first is that there was an unprecedented rise in the number of applications to this call (+42% from the 2019 call). This was possibly due to this being the last ERC call of Horizon 2020 and possibly due to the fact that in July, just before the call closure, there was extensive coverage in the specialised press about cuts introduced by the European Council to the proposed research budget.

“Also, the budget contribution of countries associated to Horizon 2020 such as Switzerland and Israel, which is usually distributed across the framework programme and used by the ERC to top up calls with low success rates, was in 2020 used instead for two research calls related to COVID-19 and the [European] Commission’s Green Deal priority.”