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ERC grants: from novelty to acclaim in six years

Since the ERC launch, two of its grantees have received a Nobel Prize, including Prof. Konstantin Novoselov, a Russian-British professor at the University of Manchester, UK. © IOP
Since the ERC launch, two of its grantees have received a Nobel Prize, including Prof. Konstantin Novoselov, a Russian-British professor at the University of Manchester, UK. © IOP

In the six years since the launch of the European Research Council (ERC), its grants have become the most sought-after funding for top researchers in Europe. The biggest reason: the freedom they give scientists to pursue projects in the way they think best. 

Italian computer engineer Professor Alberto Broggi won an ERC grant in 2008 to design software to enable vehicles to drive themselves. A year later, the University of Parma professor came up with a new idea. He would carry out an ambitious test of the systems his team had developed, by getting four driverless cars to travel from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China. Three months and 13 000 kilometres later, they arrived triumphantly at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

‘For the ERC you can have ideas during the project,’ says Prof. Broggi. ‘So we included a test that was not in the original proposal – going from Italy to China. With other grants you have to conform to a series of milestones and deadlines over three or four years.’

The freedom given to the recipients is one reason the ERC grants have become the most sought-after in Europe, even though the first grant competition was only launched in 2007. In 2012, the ERC awarded 302 ‘Advanced Grants’ of up to EUR 2.5 million to senior research leaders from a total of 2 304 applications – a success rate of just 13 %.

The ERC has already achieved a major triumph with the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to two ERC grantees. Professor Konstantin Novoselov, a Russian-British professor at the University of Manchester, UK, won the Nobel Prize in 2010 and holds an ERC ‘Starting Grant’ since 2007 for a project on graphene. This is a one atom-thick crystal with unusual quantum conductive properties – research that won him and a colleague the coveted prize. Professor Serge Haroche, 2012 Nobel laureate, is funded by an ‘Advanced Grant’ since 2009.

The ERC grants were set up against a background of difficulty for European scientists. Until the Second World War, Europe used to dominate science, with Nobel Prizes going overwhelming to the ‘old continent’. But in recent decades the number of winners from well-funded US universities and research institutes has increased.

Grants for a new era

‘European researchers have in past decades gone to work in American universities because of easier funding conditions – and many do not come back,’ says ERC Secretary General Donald Dingwell, a professor of volcanology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. Lately, dynamic Asian economies such as Singapore and South Korea are putting more effort into pure research, providing a new source of competition. ‘The global map of research is definitely changing,’ says Prof. Dingwell.

The ERC grants may help make Europe a more attractive place to do research. In particular, they can be awarded to the top scientists in the world, so long as they do the research in the European Union or a number of affiliated countries. These include Israel, where, for instance, ERC Advanced Grant holder David Milstein, a chemistry professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, is working on the production of hydrogen for use as a clean fuel.

‘These grants definitely do fill a gap,’ says Prof. Dingwell. ‘They’re the top league worldwide for grants. Everybody wants to have one.’

The grants have taken EU research funding into a new direction. Other European Commission fundings used to demand networking or cooperation between different partners and institutions in Europe, so that the cross-pollination of ideas would add value to the research.

‘You can form a group thanks to the grant. The ERC allows you to focus on the problems you want to solve.’

Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Empowering an individual researcher

ERC grants, by contrast to most EU funding, are awarded to individuals only. Instead of scattering European research, that has unified institutions in their focus on ERC grants, says ERC President Professor Helga Nowotny. Awards of the grants are increasingly used for benchmarking between universities and research institutions.

‘Because the ERC grants are so easily comparable, countries look at the results of the ERC calls as a mirror in which they can analyse their strengths and weaknesses,’ says Prof. Nowotny. ‘Ironically, with its focus on individuals, the ERC is somewhat more successful in establishing a common European research landscape than other funding opportunities.’

Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, a professor of ice-physics at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, won an ERC grant to research water under the ice sheet in Greenland. The objective was to model the slide of the ice towards the sea, where it collapses into the ocean and melts. In some places, the ice rests on a layer of water, so it slides faster into the sea, raising sea levels. The velocity of the Jakobshavn ice stream, one of Greenland’s major producers of icebergs, has doubled over the past decade, from seven metres a year to 15 – ‘the velocity of a snail – but fast for an ice sheet,’ says Prof. Dahl-Jensen.

‘The ERC allows you to do some unique research,’ she says. ‘You can form a group thanks to the grant and hire post-docs and PhDs. It allows you to focus on the problems you want to solve.’

Researchers say the grants push them further than they would have gone before an award, because of the freedom the ERC allows, combined with the competition to get them. ‘You can really think: “What would be a step in a new direction that would bring new insights?”’ says Professor Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist at the Royal Dutch Academy for Arts and Sciences, currently pursuing research into empathy with an ERC grant. ‘The ERC inspires you to be a bit more daring. It helps push you further.’

More than just science

The ERC supports a wide range of projects, including those in the social sciences. This, says Prof. Nowotny, conforms to the German concept of Wissenschaft, which means roughly the same as the English ‘knowledge’ and is wider in meaning than ‘science’. ERC-funded projects in this domain include an investigation into the ‘money illusion’ – people’s persistent misunderstanding of the effects of inflation on their wages and savings – as well as a study of the relationship between science and sacred texts in medieval Spain.

Prof. Nowotny remembers that the ERC’s scientific council had to push at first to get things running as they wanted, for example the reimbursement of travel money to grants applicants.

She had been expecting no more than 2 000 applications for the first year’s grants in 2007, but ended up with more than four times that number. ‘I am particularly proud that from this overwhelming number of 9 000 applications, our evaluation panels were still able to identify the best, like Prof. Novoselov,’ she says. ‘That was very reassuring.’

Starting Grants

Besides its Advanced Grants, the ERC also provides Starting Grants to young researchers. The aim here is to support promising researchers who have the potential of becoming independent research leaders. These Starting Grants of up to EUR 1.5 million (in some circumstances up to EUR 2 million) support the creation of excellent new research teams.

Despite the emphasis on pure, ‘blue-sky’ research, some of it has clear practical potential.

Prof. Broggi’s self-driving cars, for example, were not just let loose to make their own way from Italy to China. The scientist is now working with a truck company that carries out transport work in mines, where they would like to use big, driverless trucks. He is also hoping to program tractors to move autonomously in fields. For all this, he received a top-up grant from the ERC called ‘Proof of Concept’, which helps researchers realise the innovation potential of the ideas they have explored with ERC grants.

‘Something changed in the course of the project,’ he says. ‘A new idea came up and I felt really free to pursue it.’

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