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European competition

Nature Materials volume 5, page 839 (2006) | Download Citation

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ERC Chairman Fotis Kafatos, A Molecular Biologist at Imperial College London, says the only criterion is “Scientific Excellence”.

It's a good time to be a talented scientist in Europe, particularly if you are just starting your career. The much-heralded European Research Council1 (ERC) is finally becoming a reality, kicking off next year with a €300 million Starting Independent Researcher Grant scheme. Scientists within ten years of completing their PhD and in a position to create their first independent research team will be eligible, and can apply for funds of up to €2 million for up to five years. The grant will be flexible and its level will depend on the nature of the team and the project.

No tricks: this is all brand-new money — from within the European Commission's 7th Framework Research Programme (FP7) launching early next year. FP7's €50.5 billion budget over seven years, annually 60% more than the current budget for FP6, includes €7.5 billion for the ERC. The annual ERC budget will linearly increase to reach its target of €1.7 billion in 2013, a level it hopes to sustain in future FPs.

Applications in every scientific discipline from individual investigators will be considered. No need to team up with anyone from a different European country, and no need to guarantee 'deliverables'. And absolutely no strings attached. Your proposal just has to be scientifically brilliant. The ERC, as its first chairman Fotis Kafatos puts it, is “unashamedly elite”, and competition will be tough.

A second ERC funding stream, the Advanced Investigator Grant, open to all scientists regardless of their career stage, will be launched some time next year. From 2009, the annual budget will be split, giving one-third to the Starting Investigators Grants and two-thirds to the Advanced Investigators Grants.

Of course, this is a familiar concept. US researchers have a similar competitive granting programme courtesy of the National Science Foundation (on which the ERC has largely based itself). Europeans have the equivalent, courtesy of their own national research agencies and charities. The unexpectedness of the ERC venture comes from it being pan-European. Until very recently, most had interpreted the European Union's constitution as excluding the possibility of directly funding basic research. So far the research the EC did fund in its FPs was designed to further EU policy aims, such as industrial competitiveness and the wellbeing of its citizens. This helps explains why FPs developed their notorious bureaucracy. Applicants have to create multinational, multidisciplinary collaborations and contort their research projects to fit the sometimes precise, sometimes vague, always multitudinous requirements laid down by politicians.

Materials scientists have not done too badly out of the FPs, however. The subject areas are designated priorities for the EU. A healthy €1.4 billion was specifically earmarked for them in FP6. The emergence of the ERC will not affect this — there will be proportionately more of it in FP7. The Commission believes that researchers will continue to apply for framework money even if they are also applying for ERC money.

The ERC has not dedicated funds explicitly for different disciplines, but at least five of the twenty disciplinary evaluation panels cover areas of core interest to Nature Materials readers. Directly relevant are 'Structures and reactions', which explicitly includes nanosciences, and 'Material sciences and methods'. Other areas such as 'Engineering sciences' and 'Fundamental constituents of matter' also contain materials science.

The ERC's 22 founding members of the Scientific Council have work to do before the first call goes out. Indeed, the panel chairs, who must be high-achieving, active scientists, will soon be appointed through a nomination procedure. Each panel will have around ten members who will select referees, whose numbers may total up to 2,000.

The ERC fills a gaping hole in the European research landscape. Some of the EU's 25 countries (soon to be 27) have few national funds for which they can apply, and scientists across Europe will be attracted by the prestige of winning an EU-wide competition so there is a danger of oversubscription. But Kafatos points out that the ERC has set the bar exceptionally high, committing itself to fund only “ground-breaking research” undertaken by scientists of proven quality and clear potential. Self-evaluation should keep application numbers realistic, he hopes.

Possible oversubscription will also be controlled by the two-tier application procedure. The first stage will require only a summary of the proposed project. The panels will then select those to be invited to submit a full proposal. The full proposals will be sent out to external referees whose reports will help the panels reach their decisions.

Little has been invented in the ERC's procedures. Its joy is that by being EU-wide it raises the level of competition for everyone. Researchers can only win: even those whose applications don't make it through.

References

  1. 1.

    EU research: the battle begins. Nature Mater. 4, 261 (2005).

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat1766

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