Competing for European Research Council grants is often likened to entering football’s Champions League, with success seen as the ultimate affirmation of excellence. But while the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United have underachieved in recent years in the Champions League, UK researchers have been running away with trophy after trophy since the ERC was established in 2007.
The success rate in the latest round of the ERC’s advanced grants, aimed at senior research leaders, was just 8.3 per cent, compared with 23 per cent for the UK’s most competitive research council, the Medical Research Council, in 2013-14. This reflects the fact that the scheme – which received 2,287 applications – was open to researchers from all 28 European Union members, plus another four “associated countries”.
Despite the crowded field, UK-based researchers secured 45 of the 190 grants awarded, for a market share of 23.7 per cent (see graph, below). This is an improvement on the UK’s tally of 22.9 per cent of the 284 grants given out in the last round of advanced grants in 2013 (when the overall success rate was 11.8 per cent) and is 8.4 percentage points higher than the next most successful nation, Germany.
However, the UK arguably should be doing even better, given that it made nearly twice as many applications as its closest rival, submitting 466 against Germany’s 239. It also submitted more than 200 applications more than the second most prolific applicant, France – possibly reflecting the enormous pressure UK researchers are under to bring in grant income. The UK’s success rate, 9.7 per cent, was less than that of Belgium (11.1), Germany (12.1), the Netherlands (12.2), Denmark (18.2) and Switzerland (19.3).
Switzerland was also by far the most successful country in terms of grants won per head of population. Its 26.6 grants per 10 million people compares with 10.6 for Denmark and the Netherlands and 6.9 for the UK (Germany was only eighth, with 3.6, and France 11th with 3.5).
Switzerland’s success is particularly noteworthy given that it nearly did not make it into the programme at all. Negotiations for associated membership of the EU’s overarching Horizon 2020 research programme were suspended early last year after the Swiss voted in a referendum to impose quotas on immigration. The impasse was finally resolved, as regards participation in ERC programmes, last September.
Switzerland’s share of the total number of grants awarded has risen from 9.2 per cent in 2013 to 11.6 per cent in 2014. Other countries that have improved their market shares include Germany (up from 14.4 to 15.3 per cent), Spain (4.6 to 6.8 per cent) and Denmark (1.8 to 3.2 per cent). By contrast, Israel’s market share has slipped from 6 to 2.1 per cent, with a success rate of just 4.9 per cent. However, measured by head of population, Israel – another associated member – remains the sixth most successful country, with 4.8 grants per 10 million people.
Israel has been even more successful in other recent ERC funding rounds. It won 3.2 per cent of the 372 consolidator grants awarded earlier this year, aimed at mid-career researchers, putting it third by head of population – topped only by the Netherlands and Denmark. The UK was fourth, and again secured the largest market share: 23.1 per cent of the total. But its lead over Germany and France, which had shares of 17.7 per cent and 14.2 per cent respectively, was smaller than for advanced grants.
Israel did even better in last year’s most recent round of starting grants, aimed at researchers within seven years of their PhD. The 32 grants it won amounted to 11.1 per cent of the total, and 38.6 per 10 million people. Switzerland was the next most successful country on the latter measure, with 25.4 grants per 10 million people, followed by the Netherlands (15.4), Belgium (10.7), Austria (9.3) and the UK (9.2).
The UK again took the lion’s share of these grants, but its market share of 20.9 per cent was the lowest of the three schemes, and its lead over Germany, which took 16 per cent, was the narrowest. Switzerland’s 7.3 per cent market share was also markedly lower than for advanced grants (last year’s impasse meant that it could not apply for the most recent round of consolidator grants). However, this does not necessarily presage any future decline in the two countries’ success in the advanced grant competition — provided they keep their borders open. The latest advanced grant figures reveal that more than half of Switzerland’s grant winners and about a third of the UK’s have come to the countries from elsewhere; only nine of Switzerland’s 22 grant winners and 31 of the UK’s 47 were nationals of the respective countries.
Some EU members from the east of the continent, such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia, won no grants in any of the three schemes’ most recent rounds. Turkey, the second largest of the competing countries by population, won just one, as did Poland and Romania, the seventh and eighth most populous respectively.
However, Latvia did not submit a single application to the latest advanced grant round, and only Poland, with 33, submitted more than 20 applications. The country that submitted the most applications without any success was Greece, with 41. But that, presumably, is the least of its worries at the moment.