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FP7 Funding Opportunities at a Glance

Credit: Jeff Barnes

The first part of 2007 has seen the launch of the E.U. Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which will fund European research and technology development between 2007 and 2013. Young scientists will have unprecedented access to a budget of around €53 billion, earmarked by the European Commission (EC). Of this amount, €4.75 billion will continue funding the Marie Curie Actions, which have supported the career development and mobility of researchers in previous framework programmes. This represents a significant rise over the FP6 €1.58 billion budget that covered the 2002-2006 period.

Funding young researchers on their way to independence has become a "high-priority" in Europe with the creation of the new European Research Council, says Fotis Kafatos, ERC president and chair of the ERC Scientific Council. "The vitality of research depends on the quality of the young people who get started in research. … It is … a European competitive disadvantage that we are not as supportive of young scientists as we should be." In recognition of what he calls "that gap in science policy in Europe," the ERC has launched its new Starting Independent Researcher Grants scheme. A few national programmes in Europe, and the European Science Foundation (ESF) European Young Investigator (EURYI) Awards, have a similar purpose--but the new ERC programme is "the only large programme at European level [that is] so open and generous," Kafatos says. "Therefore we expect a lot of applications."

Marie Curie Actions

The Marie Curie Actions have become a "flagship programme" in the training and career development of European researchers, says Amanda Crowfoot, Director of the U.K. Research Office (UKRO), a service that provides information and advice on European funding, based in Brussels, Belgium.

As in FP6, the FP7 Marie Curie Actions make a distinction between “early-stage researchers” (those without a doctorate and less than 4 years' research experience) and “experienced researchers” (who have a doctorate or more than 4 years' experience). This definition accommodates national peculiarities in research curricula, such as French ingénieurs who may embark on an industrial career without a Ph.D., and Italian academic researchers, for whom traditionally a Ph.D. hasn't been compulsory.

As before, the Marie Curie programmes for early-stage researchers are institutional, not individual. Early-stage researchers must apply to host institutions that have already received EC Initial Training Network (ITN) grants, which support training in research and transferable skills, or Industry-Academy Partnerships and Pathways (IAPP) grants, which support mobility between academia and industry.

Experienced researchers, on the other hand, can apply for individual fellowships. "In FP7, the budget should increase each year, so there should be more and more fellowships," says Stéphane Aymard of the University of Poitiers in France, who, as a “national contact point” (NCP), informs French scientists about funding opportunities in European framework programmes.

Traditionally, scientists doing their first postdocs have been the primary recipients of Marie Curie individual fellowships, but the EC now hopes to attract "more senior profiles," says Aymard. European scientists willing to move to another E.U. country for 1 to 2 years can apply for an Intra-European Fellowship for Career development (IEF), which may be followed by a European Reintegration Grant (ERG) that provides 2 to 3 years' funding to move to another place in Europe, including their home country. For both fellowships, non-European scientists who have resided in a European country for at least 3 of the last 4 years will be regarded as Europeans for eligibility criteria.

European researchers also may get an International Outgoing Fellowship for Career Development (IOF) to go overseas for 1 to 2 years and return for 1 more year to their host institution in Europe. European scientists who have been outside Europe for at least 3 years may receive an International Reintegration Grant (IRG) in support of research, teaching, training, commercial, and collaboration activities for 2 to 4 years. Marie Curie Actions also support non-European researchers willing to come to Europe via International Incoming Fellowships (IIF), which last from 1 to 2 years. And each year, 5 past fellows will be chosen to receive the €50,000 Marie Curie Award in recognition of their achievements.

A Marie Curie fellowship comes with a good salary. (Standard salaries are €52,000 for researchers with less than 10 years' experience and €78,000 for those with more.) Researchers with families will see this topped up with a “monthly mobility allowance” to help them relocate together. All fellows will also receive a travel allowance to visit home once a year, and a €2000 career exploratory allowance for a job search when the award is over. The success rate, Aymard says, is around 20%.

Sources of Information and Advice

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Nuts and bolts

There's only one call for proposals each year for the Marie Curie Actions, and just getting your head around the different kinds of Marie Curie fellowships takes time. "Anybody [considering applying] needs to check the eligibility requirements because all the different schemes and sub-schemes have different rules in terms of the level of experience you need to have and mobility requirements," says Crowfoot. Aymard advises applicants to allow 3 to 4 months to find the right lab and put together the 20- to 30-page application.

Daphne van de Sande of the Italian Agency for the Promotion of European Research (APRE) in Rome says that applications where young scientists have personal contacts within a host institution--"For example they visited for a few weeks or months and want to go back to that institute"--are often the most successful. "In that case, the researcher can really establish the research project in the context of knowing what is possible in this lab and group. … Going to a supervisor that is well known in the field helps but also if they have the right infrastructure and offer training."

Every application requires a CV, and how that CV is written can make the difference between success and failure. "It’s a bit of a cultural issue, the way they present their CV," says van de Sande. "In Italy," for example, "selection is often based on points. In a European context"--like the Marie Curie awards--"they value the whole thing." Instead of just listing your accomplishments, van de Sande says, "give some more information on what you've done." Word choice matters, too. "When you write an application in English, try to keep the language simple and short sentences. For European framework programmes, the evaluators come from all over Europe," she adds.

"The European Commission takes into account the profile of the candidate--the experience, publications, and so on--but also the research project," adds Aymard. "It is very important to have something that shows clearly the innovation in the project and the ambition of the project." Some applicants, Aymard says, do not provide enough detail about methodology and strategy. Others do not develop adequately the project's objectives or put them into a broader perspective. Another common shortcoming is a failure to describe adequately "the impact of the project in terms of societal questions. If your research project is in health, you have to find information on European policy on health … to see if the research project will fit," Aymard says.

ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grants

The big news in FP7, however, is the formation of the European Research Council (ERC)--the first pan-European, scientist-led funding body for frontier research in all disciplines--and its Starting Independent Researcher grants. Whereas FP6 only offered fellowships and the relatively few Marie Curie Excellence grants, the ERC will now award about 200 starter grants each year to establish young scientists in their own labs, at an average of about €1.5 million over 5 years, Kafatos says.

The starter-grant programme is open to scientists who received a Ph.D. 2 to 9 years before the call. "We are focusing on people who have established that they are already very good scientists and are about to start or at the beginning of an independent career," says Kafatos. There is no restriction on age or nationality, but applicants must choose a host institution within Europe.

Applicants must preregister before submitting an outline application, which will be evaluated by distinguished panels. Those who pass a preliminary screening for eligibility and quality will then be invited to submit a more detailed proposal. Decisions will be based on the excellence of the individuals' record and their potential to become world-class scientific leaders; on the ground-breaking nature and potential impact of the research project and how well it is designed; and on whether the host institution can provide an appropriate research environment for the applicants to achieve their research and career ambitions. "We are looking for people who are at the frontier of their field and who have shown the ability to move their science forward," Kafatos says.

Altogether, the EC expects more than 35,000 researchers to be supported with Marie Curie funded training and career development fellowships under FP7, whereas another 35,000 researchers should benefit from the other Marie Curie Actions. During the lifetime of FP7, about 1400 researchers should receive ERC Starting grants. "We are trying to make a very clear statement of how important Europe considers helping scientists at the beginning of their career," says Kafatos.

Note: Some changes, including in eligibility requirements, may still be made. So keep an eye on the Official Journal of the European Union for further announcements.

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