Germany catches up with UK on ERC starting grant success

More money and competition for tenure has helped country’s young researchers progress

April 5, 2017
Sprinters on blocks

Early career researchers based in Germany are now just as successful as those in the UK at winning grants from the European Research Council, analysis shows.

In the early days of the ERC, which distributes money purely on the basis of research excellence, UK-based scholars were far more successful at hoovering up starting grants, worth up to €1.5 million (£1.3 million). In 2011, the high point of the UK’s dominance, researchers won more than a quarter of all such awards, nearly twice as many as those in Germany.

But since 2013, the UK’s lead over the rest of Europe has diminished to the point where it is now roughly level pegging with Germany, which has improved its performance.

Proportion of European Research Council starting grants won by country

ERC grant success rates
ERC/THE analysis

Several things explain this change in fortunes, according to Torben Schubert, an expert on the German research system at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe.

One has been a steady increase in research funding in Germany, and a move towards distributing this through competitive grants, which tend to fund the kind of early career researchers who apply for ERC starting grants, he explained.

Meanwhile, the UK suffered five years of stagnant funding in cash terms – equating to a cut in research funding in real terms – between 2010 and 2015.

“More and more” universities in Germany were also offering tenure-track jobs to researchers who win ERC starting grants, Professor Schubert added, meaning that there was now fierce competition to obtain them to achieve security in a system that offered little. “In international comparisons, it’s quite a weird system” in Germany, he explained. “People still have a lot of insecurity in their careers.”

This improvement in ERC performance tallies with other measures of research strength in Germany. In terms of how well it is cited internationally, German research had become “a little bit better” over the period, he added.

However, an analysis of ERC advanced grants, worth up to €2.5 million for established scholars to pursue “groundbreaking, high-risk” research, showed that the UK has retained its comfortable lead over other countries during the period. In 2015, the latest year for when statistics are available, UK-based researchers won 69 advanced grants, compared with 43 in Germany and 30 in France.

“It’s hard to find a really bad university in Germany, but it’s also hard to find a really world-excellent place like Oxford or Cambridge,” said Professor Schubert.

It is unclear if UK researchers will retain access to the ERC in the longer term after the country’s decision to leave the European Union.

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