What kinds of science do ERC grantees do?

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When the European Research Council (ERC) was launched in 2007, its remit and philosophy represented a marked departure from previous E.U. funding programs. Rather than fostering pan-European research collaborations within pre-established thematic priorities, the ERC set to boost the dynamism and creativity of European research by giving individual scientists carte blanche in proposing research projects. To offer “a snapshot of the results of this funding strategy,” an ERC spokesperson explains in an email to Science Careers, the ERC has now released a report analyzing all the projects it funded from 2007 to 2013.

ERC grants are designed to support principal investigators (PIs) of any field and any nationality who wish to launch their own independent lab or further boost their research career in Europe. Depending on the awardee’s career stage, they offer between €1.5 million and €2.5 million over 5 years. For the 2007-2013 funding period, which corresponds with the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research, the ERC received 41,911 eligible applications for its Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, and Advanced Grants, of which 4352 were funded with a €7.5 billion budget.

“[T]he only limitation for a project idea is their own imagination. The report nicely illustrates that ‘excellen[t] science’ is the sole selection criterion.” –Thomas Schäfer

Prior to conducting the analysis underlying the recent report, the ERC’s data about the types of research it had funded was somewhat patchy due to changes in the application system since the program’s launch. Upon applying, PIs must select the most suitable discipline-specific evaluation panel, within one of three broad scientific domains, and keywords for their research, but the panel structure and proposed keywords have both changed over time. The resulting inconsistency in the data made an overall analysis of the research that was funded difficult.

To overcome this obstacle, each of the ERC panels set out to examine and categorize the research proposals it funded during the 2007-2013 period with a common methodology. The results, released last month in the Science behind the projects report, offer an overview of the research landscape funded by the ERC. For example, the “Diagnostic Tools, Therapies and Public Health” panel, which covers a broad range of fields and was one of the panels that gathered the highest share (15%) of all life sciences proposals, saw around two-thirds of its portfolio concentrated on diagnostics and therapies. Another 14% of the panel’s proposals focused on public health, with the remainder covering more global or interdisciplinary projects.

Looking across all successful proposals, the report also investigates the extent to which they were broad or interdisciplinary, as measured by overlaps in their subject matter with panels other than the one they best matched with. Overall, 42% of the projects were found to have a connection to another panel. Proposals were most often multifaceted in the life sciences domain (54%), followed by the social sciences and humanities domain (45%) and the physical sciences and engineering domain (31%).

Most of the overlap occurred between panels within the same domain, but among the most significant cross-domain connections was the overlap of the “Synthetic Chemistry and Materials” panel with the “Molecular and Structural Biology and Biochemistry” panel. The overlapping projects mainly consisted of biophysical analysis of protein–protein interactions or the biologically inspired development of more efficient catalysis, green methodologies, and molecular machines.

In keeping with the ERC’s philosophy, the report intends to share what research areas have been funded so far and “should not serve as a guide to potential applicants,” the ERC spokesperson warns. Nonetheless, 2007 ERC grantee Thomas Schäfer, chair of the Sci-Generation targeted network, which according to its website “aims at elaborating contemporary scientific thought and thereby disseminating a new spirit of research and innovation in Europe,” sees at least one message that future applicants can draw from the results. “[T]he only limitation for a project idea is their own imagination. The report nicely illustrates that ‘excellen[t] science’ is the sole selection criterion,” regardless of whether the research fits any pre-established ways of thinking or traditional fields of science, Schäfer, who also leads an interdisciplinary group at the University of the Basque Country’s Institute for Polymer Materials in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain, writes in an email to Science Careers.

The report also highlights how the ERC could serve as an example for other funding bodies so that they don’t miss out on what could become the most exciting research, Schäfer argues. “It … is a challenge to evaluate cross-domain research because experts need to be aware of their own limitation … and still understand the potential behind the proposal. … The ERC has successfully put significant effort to meet this challenge,” but many funding bodies in European countries are still lagging behind, he adds. “While many research agencies across Europe are aware of multi-disciplinary research, they do not necessarily have the tools in place to warrant a fair evaluation.”

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