€13 billion to support scientific research until 2020

Vice-president of European Research Council speaks about objectives of first pan-European research funding organisation

By Heitor Shimizu, in Barcelona | Agência FAPESP – The European Research Council was set up in 2007 as the first pan-European research funding organisation. The ERC complements other science and technology funding activities in Europe such as those of national or more local agencies, and is a flagship component of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Research Framework Programme for 2014-2020.

Núria Sebastián, a professor of psychology at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University and ERC Vice-President since January 2014, spoke about the Council at FAPESP Week Barcelona, co-hosted by FAPESP and Research Centres of Catalonia (CERCA) in the Catalan capital on May 28-29, 2015.

“The ERC supports research at and beyond the frontiers of knowledge in all areas, with a high degree of flexibility and without predefined themes,” Sebastián said. “And we support scientists individually rather than research networks.”

According to Sebastián, grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by researchers who are working or moving to work in Europe. Grant applications are selected following international peer review.

The main forms of support offered by the ERC are Starting Grants, worth up to €2 million in funding for researchers at the start of their careers; Consolidator Grants, worth up to €2.75 million for researchers with over seven and up to 12 years of experience since completion of their PhD or an equivalent degree; and Advanced Grants, worth up to €3.5 billion for researchers with a strong track record in the past ten years. All three grant modalities last up to five years.

The success rate for projects submitted to the ERC is 10%. The success rate for Spaniards in the programme is 7%.

“We offer the researchers we support conditions to enjoy financial independence for five years and to negotiate better working conditions with host institutions,” she said. “The ERC offers independence, recognition and visibility for researchers to work on whatever subject they want and with a team of their own choice.”

Moreover, Sebastián stressed, “researchers supported by the ERC can move to any European country taking their funding with them, and they can bring collaborators from Europe or any other region to join their teams.”

The ERC has €13 billion to spend in the period 2014-2020. In nominal terms this is more than one and half times the budget for the previous seven-year period (2007-2013), which was €7.5 billion.

“We funded the work of more than 4,300 researchers in our first seven years,” Sebastián said, “and 65% of them were in the initial stages of their career. Our 2014 call resulted in the selection of 375 projects for Starting Grants and 372 for Consolidator Grants. The researchers concerned are from 66 countries.”

Presenting a breakdown of 995 grants by host institution country, Sebastián highlighted the fact that 18% went to non-European researchers and that 1% of these were Brazilians.

“In addition to supporting the best brains and the most innovative ideas in Europe, we also want to attract talented researchers from other parts of the world,” she said.

According to Sebastián, the excellence of the ERC’s results is evidenced by the high frequency with which it is cited in the scientific literature even though it was founded only eight years ago.

“We counted more than 30,000 published articles that mentioned ERC funding up until September 2014,” she said. “Seven per cent were among the 1% most cited worldwide in the respective knowledge area and year of publication.”

In the long run the ERC aims not just to support research but “to shape the European research system and lay the foundations for new industries, markets and broader social innovations in the future,” Sebastián said.