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The European Research Council (ERC) is the first European Union funding body set up to support investigator-driven frontier research. It is part of the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7), which succeeded FP6 in 2007. The European Research Council is similar to the United States' National Science Foundation.

The European Research Council is an independent agency funding frontier research across Europe in all disciplines, from the biological and physical sciences to engineering and the humanities. It was formally launched in 2 February 2007 within the scope of the European Treaty, by a common action of the institutions of the European Union (the Commission, the Parliament and the Council). Created to provide a new source and philosophy for competitive funding, based on peer-reviewed excellence as the sole criterion for success, the ERC is aiming to set new standards and create a level playing field for research across a diverse continent of 500 million people in 39 countries with a collective economy of €15 trillion. The ERC is an inclusive institution that seeks excellence irrespective of nationality, gender, or location. [1]

Contents

History

The idea of having a funding mechanism for basic research at the EU level has been discussed and supported among European scientists for a long time. However, its realization was held back at the political level because the European Treaty, which is the document that forms the legal basis of the EU, was interpreted as allowing EU funding only to strengthen the scientific and technological base of European industry — that is, only funding for applied research rather than basic research. In conjunction with the Lisbon declaration in 2000, leaders of the EU, in particular the European Commissioner for Research at the time, Philippe Busquin, realized that the European Treaty had to be reinterpreted; a transformation of European economy from traditional manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy has to involve the enhanced support at the European level for science of all kinds, including fundamental science as well as applied science.

Several important initiatives, which paved the way for the ERC, were taken at the beginning of the century by a number of organizations and individuals and a series of communications in the scientific literature laid out the need for a research council in Europe.

In 2002, a high-level expert group was commissioned to explore the possibilities of creating an ERC. This group concluded that the EU should establish an ERC to support basic research. A number of other expert groups, such as one commissioned by the European Science Foundation, another charged with the task of analyzing the economic implications of the Lisbon declaration and a high level group commissioned by the European Commission, also arrived at a similar conclusion and boosted the idea of establishing an ERC. With the ice broken, scientists and politicians have since strongly supported the establishment of an ERC. In 2006, the European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers accepted the Seventh Framework Programme for the European Union’s support for research, of which the ERC was a part. In the ERC kick-off conference in Berlin, various speakers talked of ‘an idea whose time has come’, ‘a European factory of ideas’, ‘a champions’ league’, ‘a great day for Europe and a great day for science’, and the beginning of a ‘snowball effect’.[2][3]

Governance & Structure

The ERC is governed by the Scientific Council (ScC), consisting of 22 eminent European scientists and scholars, and supported operationally by the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA), based in Brussels. The ScC is responsible for setting the ERC’s scientific strategy including establishing the annual ‘Ideas’ Work Programme and calls for proposals, designing the peer review systems, identifying the peer review experts, and communicating with the scientific community. The Scientific Council members were nominated by Commissioner Potočnik in July 2005 and worked intensively to define the key principles and scientific operating practices of the ERC in preparation for the start-up. Following its formal establishment, the Scientific Council reaffirmed the election of its Chair and ERC President, Professor Fotis Kafatos, and the two Vice-Chairs and ERC Vice-Presidents, Professor Helga Nowotny and Dr. Daniel Estève.

The second pillar of the ERC, the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA), is responsible for supporting the peer review process, implementing ERC strategy as set by the ScC, and executing all financial operations. The ERCEA is currently headed by its Director-ad-Interim, Dr. Jack Metthey. It employs some 270 staff of which approximately 45 are PhD scientists.

To couple the two pillars and create an integrated institution, two integrative mechanisms were put in place:

  1. The post of Secretary General (SG), selected by the ScC and located in Brussels, with the goal of interacting closely with the ERCEA. The first SG, the biochemist Prof. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was for 8 years the head of the largest national research agency in Europe, the German Research Foundation (DFG). The second and current SG is Prof. Andreu Mas-Colell, a distinguished scientist (Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, Professor at Berkeley, at Harvard, and at Pompeu Fabra, and recipient of several honorary doctorates and numerous prestigious prizes and awards). Prof. Mas-Colell has also strong experience in research policy and management as the former Minister of the Universities and Research in Catalonia. He is credited for the reforms that made Catalonia one of the most impressive locations in Europe for high-quality research. It is widely recognized that both Secretary Generals have been instrumental in the success of the ERC to date, and have worked closely and fruitfully together with the Director of the ERCEA, Dr. Jack Metthey.
  2. The ERC Board consisting of the three ScC Chairs, the Director of the ERCEA and the Secretary General. The ERC Board is chaired by the Secretary General.

There is also a five-member ERCEA Steering Committee, chaired by the EC’s Director-General for Research José Manuel Silva Rodríguez and including a distinguished external scientist (currently Catherine Cesarsky), a ScC member, and two senior EC officers.

Following the recommendation from the ERC Review (see below), the positions of the Secretary General and Director of the ERCEA will be merged in 2010 into a single, more powerful position: the post of the new ERCEA Director is currently open for applications (see here for the announcement). The application deadline is March 5, 2010.

Budget

The ERC budget is guaranteed at €7.51 billion for 2007-2013, the duration of the EC’s 7th Framework Programme. It provided €300 million in 2007 and will increase by ~€250 million each year, reaching just under €1.8 billion for 2013. The ERC budget is supported by the European Commission and is supplemented by contributions from states associated with but not currently members of the EU (the associated countries). Together, the 27 EU member states and the 12 associated countries comprise the European Research Area (ERA) (http://ec.europa.eu/research/era/index_en.html).

Founding principles: Frontier research based on peer-reviewed excellence

The first founding principle of the ERC is that research grant applications should be judged using the sole criterion of peer-reviewed excellence, independent of political, geographic or economic considerations. All ERC calls for funding are open to nationals of any country in the world, as long as they are committed to work primarily in Europe. The quality and originality of the research project and the qualifications of the applicant, as shown, for example, by their publication record, are the only evaluation criteria. This means that there will be no juste retour, in other words there are no guarantees that the individual countries contributing to the programme will receive any part of the funding.

The second founding principle of the ERC is to target frontier research[4] by encouraging high-risk, high-reward proposals that may revolutionize science and potentially lead to innovation if successful. The ScC does not pre-select the frontiers, but challenges applicants to identify and pursue them. It then entrusts the evaluation panels to select the best, most promising proposals. Funding is provided for individual projects initiated in an investigator-driven, ‘bottom‑up’ process. Although collaborations within a project are welcome, there is no formal demand to collaborate.

The ERC asks researchers to think big, and provides generous support for ambitious projects. It does not want its carefully selected grantees to waste their time by taking on numerous peripheral projects, or constantly having to seek additional money to fund their research. The grants are flexible, so that all costs for a specific project can be covered, making rebudgeting of the grant money possible during the duration of the grant. In addition, the grants are portable, meaning that if scientists move to another university or institute, the grant moves with them.

Two types of grants offered

The ERC offers two core grant schemes: [5]

ERC Starting Grants support up-and-coming independent research leaders of any nationality with:

• 2 to 10 years after PhD award (*)
• An excellent track record
• A ground-breaking research proposal
• A host organization located in Europe
• Promotion of early scientific independence of promising talents
• Up to EUR 2 million per grant for up to five years

(*) Allowance is provided for time spent on career breaks, parental leave and national service. Further, the ERC panels are encouraged to be open to excellent and promising candidates with unconventional careers.

ERC Advanced Grants (AdG) support outstanding advanced researchers of any nationality with:

• An exceptional scientific leadership profile
• An excellent scientific track record
• A ground-breaking research proposal
• A primary host organization located in Europe
• Up to EUR 3.5 million per grant for up to five years

For information about submitting an ERC grant proposal, see here.

Success rates

Grant Applications Grants Success rate Reference
StG-07 9167 299 3.2%
StG-09 2503 237 9.4% (PDF)
AdG-08 2167 275 12.6% (PDF)

ERC Peer Review

The ERC’s peer-review evaluation process must command the confidence of the research community and is central to the achievement of the ERC’s objectives. The ERC ScC divided the full range of scientific disciplines into three major domains, with budgets allotted to each based on the weighted average distribution of national funding in scientifically strong countries worldwide: 34% for life sciences, 14% for social sciences/humanities and 39% for physical/engineering sciences. The ScC strongly encourages interdisciplinary proposals, for which a notional 13% of the budget is reserved, if sufficient top-quality proposals are submitted. The ERC philosophy towards interdisciplinary proposals is to apply mainstreaming, i.e. to have them reviewed by sufficiently knowledgeable panelists and/or external reviewers but to ultimately rank them competitively within their primary panel. Clearly, identifying and rewarding true interdisciplinarity is a challenging yet worthwhile task and one would expect that the ERC, being a novel and learning organization, would likely adapt and refine its procedures vis-a-vis the treatment of interdisciplinary proposals as experience is gained.

The peer review in the three domains is carried out by a total of 25 panels led by Panel Chairs whose scientific status gives credibility to the selection process. The configuration of the evaluation panels was finalized by the Scientific Council during the first semester of 2008, taking account of the experience from the first Starting Grant call. For the Advanced Grant, two sets of panels have been put in place, operating in alternate years. This moderates the workload on individual reviewers and means that they are not excluded from applying to the ERC on alternate years when they are not involved in panels. There are currently thus about 900 ERC panel members; together with the 2000 external reviewers they constitute the backbone of the ERC evaluation structure.

Relations with stakeholders in Europe

By its existence, the ERC aims to enhance the performance of the European research system. The ERC and national funding bodies have important objectives in common – improving the climate for frontier research in Europe and the attractiveness of the European research environment. The Scientific Council has been keen to learn from the ERC’s peers in national research councils (European and overseas) and to engage in dialogue and appropriate collaboration. The ERC has already benefited from the support of national funding agencies, both in seconding national experts to its Executive Agency, and providing expert support to assist in the Starting Grant evaluation.

Open access

The Scientific Council has engaged actively in the debate on access and availability of publications and research results. It has adopted an ‘open access’ policy by requiring that all peer-reviewed publications from ERC-funded research projects are deposited in the appropriate Internet-accessible libraries within 6 months of publication. See here for more information.

European Research Council: Domains and Panels

For a full panel description, please see: Panel Structure and Descriptors (29/02/2008) - updated 9/10/2008 (PDF)

Domain PE: Physical Sciences & Engineering

PE1 Mathematical foundations: all areas of mathematics, pure and applied, plus mathematical foundations of computer science, mathematical physics and statistics
PE2 Fundamental constituents of matter: particle, nuclear, plasma, atomic, molecular, gas, and optical physics
PE3 Condensed matter physics: structure, electronic properties, fluids, nanosciences
PE4 Physical and analytical chemical sciences: analytical chemistry, chemical theory, physical chemistry/chemical physics
PE5 Materials and synthesis: materials synthesis, structure-properties relations, functional and advanced materials, molecular architecture, organic chemistry
PE6 Computer science and informatics: informatics and information systems, computer science, scientific computing, intelligent systems
PE7 Systems and communication engineering: electronic, communication, optical and systems engineering
PE8 Products and processes engineering: product design, process design and control, construction methods, civil engineering, energy systems, material engineering
PE9 Universe sciences: astro-physics/chemistry/biology; solar system; stellar, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, planetary systems, cosmology, space science, instrumentation
PE10 Earth system science: physical geography, geology, geophysics, meteorology, oceanography, climatology, ecology, global environmental change, biogeochemical cycles, natural resources management.

Domain SH: Social Sciences & Humanities

SH1 Individuals, institutions and markets: economics, finance and management
SH2 Institutions, values and beliefs and behaviour: sociology, social anthropology, political science, law, communication, social studies of science and technology
SH3 Environment and society: environmental studies, demography, social geography, urban and regional studies
SH4 The Human Mind and its complexity: cognition, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and education
SH5 Cultures and cultural production: literature, visual and performing arts, music, cultural and comparative studies
SH6 The study of the human past: archaeology, history and memory.

Domain LS: Life Sciences

LS1 Molecular and Structural Biology and Biochemistry: molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, structural biology, biochemistry of signal transduction
LS2 Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology: genetics, population genetics, molecular genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics, computational biology, biostatistics, biological modelling and simulation, systems biology, genetic epidemiology
LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology: cell biology, cell physiology, signal transduction, organogenesis, developmental genetics, pattern formation in plants and animals
LS4 Physiology, Pathophysiology and Endocrinology: organ physiology, pathophysiology, endocrinology, metabolism, ageing, regeneration, tumorigenesis, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome
LS5 Neurosciences and neural disorders: neurobiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, neuroimaging, systems neuroscience, neurological disorders, psychiatry
LS6 Immunity and infection: immunobiology, aetiology of immune disorders, microbiology, virology, parasitology, global and other infectious diseases, population dynamics of infectious diseases, veterinary medicine
LS7 Diagnostic tools, therapies and public health: aetiology, diagnosis and treatment of disease, public health, epidemiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, regenerative medicine, medical ethics
LS8 Evolutionary, population and environmental biology: evolution, ecology, animal behaviour, population biology, biodiversity, biogeography, marine biology, ecotoxicology, prokaryotic biology
LS9 Applied life sciences and biotechnology: agricultural, animal, fishery, forestry and food sciences; biotechnology, chemical biology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, industrial biosciences; environmental biotechnology and remediation.

Notes

  1. ^ M. Antonoyiannakis, J. Hemmelskamp and F. C. Kafatos, "The European Research Council takes flight", Cell 136, 805 (2009)
  2. ^ E.-L. Winnacker, "On Excellence through Competition", European Educational Research Journal 7, 124 (2008)
  3. ^ C.-H. Heldin, "The European Research Council — a new opportunity for European science", Nat. Rev. Mol. Cell Biol. 9, 417 (2008)
  4. ^ H. Nowotny, Frontier Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities: what does it mean, what can it mean? (PDF), http://www.helga-nowotny.eu/documents/frontier_research.pdf  
  5. ^ Annual Report on the ERC activities and achievements in 2008 (PDF), http://erc.europa.eu/pdf/ERC_rapport2009_090831.pdf  

References

See also

External links

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