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Europe’s top science funder shows high-risk research pays off

The European Research Council publishes its third annual impact assessment of the projects it funds.

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A popular and unusual self-review carried out by Europe’s most prestigious science funder is back. The annual assessment, now in its third year, found that nearly one in five projects supported by the European Research Council (ERC) led to a scientific breakthrough.

The independent review, undertaken in 2017, assessed 223 completed ERC projects that had ended by mid-2015. It deemed that 79% of them achieved a major scientific advance, 19% of which were considered fundamental breakthroughs. That proportion rose to 27% for ERC Advanced Grants, which are awarded to experienced researchers. Only 1% of the total were judged to have made no appreciable scientific contribution. The review was published on 31 May.

Established in 2007 to improve the quality of Europe’s science, the ERC is the European Union’s premier funder of blue-skies research and is part of Horizon 2020, the EU’s main science-funding programme. It awards generous, multiyear grants in any discipline and applications are judged solely on their quality. The council has undertaken annual reviews of the projects it funds since it ran a popular pilot assessment in 2015. The strategy is pioneering among European funders, most of which evaluate success on a project-by-project basis, and it was praised for taking a qualitative approach rather than relying, for instance, on bibliometrics.

Source: ERC

Risky business

The latest assessment was carried out by senior scientists convened by the ERC’s Scientific Council. Each panel member was asked a series of questions about a randomly selected set of projects. This year, evaluators were also asked to focus on a project’s risk to a greater extent than in previous years. (A spokesperson for the ERC said that the council is still refining the assessment’s methodology.)

The 19% figure of scientific breakthroughs in the latest assessment is lower than in previous years; 21% and 25% of ERC projects assessed in the 2015 and 2016 exercises, respectively, were classed as such (see ‘Europe’s top research grants’).

The reviewers deemed that most projects that made breakthroughs were high risk and high reward, and only 10% of projects were considered low risk. “The ERC has really pushed the expectation of raising the boundaries of science and taking more risks,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, a lobby group in Brussels.

The assessment shows that risk-friendly funding is crucial for retaining talent in Europe, where research funders are generally risk-averse, says Martin Vechev, a computer scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who received an ERC grant aimed at early-career researchers in 2015, after spending time at computing firm IBM in the United States. The grant encouraged him to stay in Europe, and he says that the funding helped his team to develop a new sub-field of artificial intelligence that focuses on machines that automatically write computer code.

The reviewers also deemed that more than 50% of projects had already made an economic and societal impact. In a speech earlier this year, ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said that council-funded research generated 29% of patents approved from EU funding in 2007–13, despite receiving less than 17% of the money.

Funding incentive

The review comes at a crucial time for EU research funding, say observers. This week, the European Commission is expected to release a detailed budget plan for the next instalment of its main funding programme, which will include the ERC’s next funding pot. The programme, called Horizon Europe, will run from 2021 to 2027 and has a proposed budget of nearly €100 billion (US$117 billion).

The latest review provides ammunition in the fight to raise the ERC’s budget, says Palmowski. His organization advocates for a doubling of the annual budget, which in 2017 was €1.8 billion (it started with €300 million in 2007).

The findings should encourage policymakers around Europe to focus their national research funding on excellence, even if economic growth is their priority, says the League of European Research Universities (LERU). “The ERC clearly shows that focusing on excellence alone at application stage also leads to demonstrable impacts,” says Laura Keustermans, senior policy officer at the LERU in Leuven, Belgium. Since its creation, ERC grantees have won six Nobel prizes and four Fields Medals, considered the most prestigious prize in mathematics.

Nature 558, 16-17 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05325-4
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