Fifth of European Research Council grants lead to ‘breakthrough’

Interdisciplinary and risky projects in particular led to projects that made big strides in understanding, evaluators say

June 5, 2018
Five lightbulbs

A review of European Research Council funded projects has found that nearly one in five produced a scientific breakthrough, while six in 10 led to a “major scientific advance”.

The annual assessment of research funded by one of the world’s most prestigious – and financially generous – funders found that nearly 80 per cent of projects yielded either a breakthrough or major scientific advance, better than in previous assessments done in 2015 and 2016.

Twenty per cent were judged to have made an “incremental scientific contribution”, while 1 per cent made no “appreciable” contribution at all.

The review, Qualitative Evaluation of Completed Projects Funded by the European Research Council (2017), also sought to rate projects on other qualities, such as social and economic impact, interdisciplinarity and applicability outside their main fields.

It found that the more interdisciplinary the project was found to be, the higher its overall scientific significance was rated.

The same was found to be true of projects judged to be “high risk/high gain” – these were significantly more likely to lead to breakthroughs, although a “significant portion” of risky projects achieved only an incremental scientific advance. This suggests that the ERC is taking a “moderate amount of risk” when it decides who to fund, the report suggests.

Nearly half of the projects assessed were found to have had only a “slight” or non-existent impact on at least one of the following areas: the economy, society or policymaking.

The results were based on an assessment of 223 randomly selected projects, split between ERC advanced and starter grants. The judgements on scientific significance were made by 25 panels made up of three to four experts, two of which are previous or current ERC panel members and chairs, and one an expert who has not been a panel member or an applicant or recipient of an ERC grant in the last five years.

Researchers who sat on panels that awarded funding to the projects being assessed did not take part in the evaluation, the report says.

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