Research in Europe needs a powerful driving force

December 19, 2014

The establishment of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s planned investment fund is expected to see up to 2.7 billion euros withdrawn from the EU research budget. Science managers such as Max Planck President Martin Stratmann take a critical view. Their greatest concern is that the European Research Council (ERC) as the “flagship of European cutting-edge research” will be particularly hard hit. A look at the tasks entrusted to this institution gives an idea of the potential consequences.

The Covent Garden is a 26-storey building that stands 100 metres tall. While not the tallest structure in the EU metropolis of Brussels, its glass-covered oval shape makes it something of an architectural landmark. It is also the most important address in the city for European research funding. This is where the European Research Council (ERC) is headquartered – an agency charged with managing a budget of around 13 billion euros on the EU Commission’s behalf. Its goal is to award this money, in a competitive process and over a seven-year period up to 2020, to Europe’s best research scientists. The Executive Agency of the ERC, headed by the Scientific Council, organizes the entire procedure, from the necessary calls for applications through to the final interviews in which a jury of external scientists decide the fate of individual applicants.

Competition is a fundamental principle

The ERC has been in existence since 2007 and is the first organization dedicated to funding basic research with a Europe-wide remit. Since its founding, the ERC has financed around 4,500 projects – selected from among more than 43,000 applications. The Max Planck Society has supported the establishment of the ERC from the beginning and has consistently emphasized the importance of the pattern being set by this institution, as the principles it adopts in granting support illustrate “how the evaluation and funding of basic research must be successfully structured.” One of these principles is a commitment to award funds solely on the basis of science-and quality-led criteria. Particularly for those EU states that lack a national research funding system, the ERC serves as a model and provides the momentum to develop structures of their own.

Grants for all career stages

ERC support extends to the various stages in the career of a researcher. There are for example Starting Grants aimed at highly talented junior scientists, and Consolidator Grants for post-docs with several years of experience. In addition, there are Advanced Grants intended for established top scientists. Whereas in the first line up to two million euros and in the second 2.75 million euros funding can be granted, Advanced Grants can be made of up to 3.5 million euros to carry out projects. In each case, funds are released over five years, during which time the Grant recipients are able to realize their goals at their university or institute.

For projects that progress from purely basic research towards application, the ERC has another funding line available. Researchers can apply for proof of concept funding of up to 150,000 euros in order to prepare business plans or kick-start licensing deals.  

Momentum for innovation

In view of the tough competition, a grant has long been seen as a plus point in a researcher’s résumé. The ERC is also proud that three of the scientists who it has funded were awarded Nobel Prizes in 2014 – namely Edvard and May-Britt Moser (Biology) and Jean Tirole (Economics). The universities and institutes that number ERC Grant recipients among their ranks also profit from the prestige.

On the other hand, it is clear that prestige is not all that matters. The Grants represent important outside funding which enables researchers to undertake new projects on the frontiers of knowledge. Overall, the proceeds of these ERC Grants also strengthen the achievement potential of the European research and innovation system. Given the budget that was set when Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation, was adopted, the ERC estimates the impact to be as follows: Over the seven years up to 2020, around 7000 scientists may be expected to receive grants which in turn will support some 42,000 team members. On this basis, almost 11,000 doctoral students and around 16,000 post-docs would be integrated into science at the cutting edge.

Criticism of planned cutbacks

However, following the announcement that over the next three years up to 2.7 billion euros is to be cut from Horizon 2020 to set up a new EU investment fund, these positive effects may be significantly curtailed. Observers anticipate that within Horizon 2020 – which has a total budget of around 70 billion euros for 2014-2020 – it is the ERC that may well bear the brunt of the cutbacks. No official statements are yet to hand from the EU, but science managers are already alarmed. The President of the Max Planck Society is one of those who have spoken up. Writing in the “Tagesspiegel”, where he cites alternatives, Martin Stratmann agrees that Juncker is right in taking the initiative to stimulate growth in Europe. But if this means withdrawing funds already scheduled to strengthen the innovation system, it will be counterproductive. It is expected that the EU Commission will put forward a plan in January illustrating how the investment fund is to be implemented and giving more details of the financing.


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