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Vienna Event Aims to Help Eastern Scientists Compete for European Grants

The Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria

The Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria near Vienna.

CREDIT: Elisabeth Pain

VIENNA—The European Research Council (ERC), which was launched in 2007 to support pioneering research across Europe, is widely seen as a successful initiative. More than 3400 group leaders have received grants so far totaling more than €5.7 billion. But most of these successful group leaders are based in northern and Western Europe, a fact that concerns many, including ERC itself. In an effort to tackle the problem, the ERC organized a 2-day event here last week where potential ERC applicants from central and Eastern European nations could network with ERC grantees from their region and get tips on applying for ERC funding.


The representation of central and Eastern European scientists among ERC grantees has been "a concern from the very beginning," said ERC President Helga Nowotny during a press conference last Thursday preceding the 2-day event. "The figures in the countries of central and Eastern Europe are not where we would like them to be." According to ERC figures, since 2007, scientists in the United Kingdom have obtained 765 grants, which puts that country way ahead of all others. Germany is second, with 476 grants. Next is France and then the Netherlands, with 462 and 275 grants, respectively. Austria, which hosted the event, has obtained 83 grants worth about €137 million combined.

"By reaching out to younger people, we may be able to make them more competitive." —Helga Nowotny

In contrast, Hungary has obtained just 31 grants. Thirteen have gone to scientists in Poland, seven to the Czech Republic, three to Bulgaria, two to Slovenia, one each to Latvia and Slovakia, and none to Romania.

National success rates also vary greatly: Twenty-three percent of applications from Switzerland have been successful, along with 16% from France and Israel, 14% from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and 13% from Austria and Germany. In Greece and the Czech Republic, the success rate is just 3%. It's even lower in Poland and Bulgaria (2%) and worse still in Slovakia and Slovenia, where just one application in about 100 has succeeded.

The reasons behind the geographical split are complex, with population size and national economies playing a role. "But this number [of ERC grantees in a given country] and the different success rates also reflect the various levels of investment in research and the quality of the scientific publications in the different countries," ERC stated in a press release.

During tea breaks, central and Eastern European participants at the event told Science Careers that they suffer chronic underfunding and, as a consequence, find it difficult to build a competitive track record. One successful grantee also said that his generation had been taught at school not to stand out and felt shy when selling themselves and their research.

Empowering eastern scientists

"What can be done?" Nowotny asked at the press conference. "Many measures should be taken by national authorities, but this is outside of what [ERC] can do." Excellence is the only selection criterion for ERC, and ERC has made clear that funding decisions will continue to be entirely merit-based, despite political pressures to give central and Eastern European countries an advantage.

Still, there are signs that ERC is having positive, if indirect, effects on national research systems across Europe, encouraging competition between host countries and institutions, spurring the creation of ERC-like national funding agencies in Poland, and prompting countries like Slovenia to fund their best ERC runners-up. Host institutions and national ministries should also "help to create an environment in which more success can be encouraged," Nowotny said.

<p>At the event, a panel of ERC grantees gave advice to potential applicants. From left to right: Marcin Nowotny, František Štěpánek, János Pintz, Eva Kondorosi, W. Tecumseh Fitch, and Walter Pohl.</p>

At the event, a panel of ERC grantees gave advice to potential applicants. From left to right: Marcin Nowotny, František Štěpánek, János Pintz, Eva Kondorosi, W. Tecumseh Fitch, and Walter Pohl.

CREDIT: Elisabeth Pain

CREDIT: Elisabeth Pain

At the event, a panel of ERC grantees gave advice to potential applicants. From left to right: Marcin Nowotny, František Štěpánek, János Pintz, Eva Kondorosi, W. Tecumseh Fitch, and Walter Pohl.

The number of applications from the region has actually declined over the years, Nowotny said, "an alarming signal" that central and Eastern European scientists may be giving up on getting an ERC grant. By the end of this year, ERC plans to announce a series of measures aimed at boosting central and Eastern European participation in ERC competitions. Nowotny also believes that "by reaching out to younger people, we may be able to make them more competitive."

Thirty-seven early-career scientists from central and Eastern European countries registered for the Vienna event, which was co-organized with the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research, and the Representation of the European Commission in Vienna. Over tea, the participants told Science Careers that they found it helpful and inspiring. Katarzyna Derwińska, of the Institute of Mother and Child in Warsaw, said that talking to people at the event "clarified a lot of things." And although she already knew about the existence of National Contact Points, she now realizes that they can help "almost with everything, except the idea" for a proposal.

Improving your own odds

During a panel session that closed the event, ERC grantees offered tips to applicants on how to boost their applications:

  • Plan ahead and build your CV. Your CV "cannot be changed overnight," said Marcin Nowotny, a structural biologist at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw (no relation to Helga Nowotny). So think ahead and maximize your research outputs. It helps to do some of your training within a well-established national system, added Walter Pohl, a historian at the University of Vienna.
  • Think big. To be funded by ERC, your idea has to be novel and pioneering. "You need to think big, risky, borderline crazy sometimes," Marcin Nowotny said. János Pintz, a mathematician at the Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest said he found the exercise of writing a proposal very useful in that "it forced me to think through what are really the next mathematical problems which are maybe not possible to solve but certainly [worthwhile] to attack."
  • Prepare for the interview. It is "extremely important" to invest a lot of effort in preparing for the interview, Marcin Nowotny said. You have to convince the panel that your research is really interesting and worthwhile, he added—and keep it simple, because there may be nonexperts on the panel.
  • Get help. It's important to choose a host institution where you know you are going to be supported. Marcin Nowotny said that his institute has an international grant office and that he benefited greatly from their advice. Éva Kondorosi, a plant biologist at the Biological Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, recommended asking senior colleagues for advice. Applicants sometimes fail at the first round because they leave out important information, she said. Presubmission feedback from experienced investigators can help young researchers avoid such mistakes.

An ERC grant is the "most prestigious grant you can get in Europe," so it's well worth trying for, Marcin Nowotny said, even if the odds are long. Beyond the generous funding, an ERC grant offers recognition of the quality of your work and enhanced visibility. Pohl added that an ERC grant puts awardees in a better position to negotiate with their institutions.

"The ERC is very much about the empowerment of researchers," especially young scientists, Pohl said. "The ERC is actually changing the academic world. It may take a while, in some countries [it will] take longer, but there is hope that it is going to change."

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