Grant contest proves an ill-conceived lottery

September 7, 2007

European Research Council's attempt to identify innovative young scientists fails on all counts, says Christian Fleck

Last month, 8,608 young researchers received an e'mail informing them that they had not won in a European lottery. The prizes on offer were high - up to €400,000 (£2,000) - but the cost of losing was also high.

Each of the 8,608 researchers had sent in a substantial research proposal in order to secure the new "starting grant" of the recently established European Research Council. The final rejection rate has now emerged as 97 per cent of applicants, much higher than in other scientific competitions. This will disturb and discourage the losers and send out the wrong message to the would be European Research Area.

The ERC is the youngest European research funding body, run by a scientific council of 22 distinguished scientists, including two Nobel laureates, and is independent of the European Commission's bureaucracy and member states' politicians. Its first programme tried to identify the best young researchers of "scientific excellence" engaged in "cutting-edge investigation" at "frontier research". But the resulting "starting grant" scheme will do more harm than good. The selection procedures have been ill-designed and are not fit to reach the goal of supporting scientific excellence.

The competition was open to young scientists from every corner of the wider Europe who had finished their PhD between two and nine years earlier. Such candidates were invited to submit research proposals for peer review. On April 25, the closing date of the competition, the ERC had received 9,167 proposals.

In the first round, the ERC rejected all but 559 applicants. The survivors were invited to expand their proposals within a matter of weeks. Ultimately, only about 250 will win. There is no way to see fair play because the 800 evaluators have already rebuffed too many promising applicants.

Furthermore, the evaluators lack the means for fair play for several reasons. By the very nature of being young, the applicants' potential cannot be determined rationally. Usually, PhD theses are written in the author's native language; most panellists might not even be able to understand the applicant's title.

The main criterion is the scientific value of the proposed research. It is always hard to evaluate plans, hence most evaluators turn to background information to make sense of a particular proposal. Obviously young researchers cannot accumulate much reputation of their own. For this reason, the evaluators had to look for other signs of excellence. One could be sure that they evaluated a proposal from an affiliate of a highly esteemed colleague much more favourably than one sent in from a no-name place by a disciple of an unfamiliar mentor. The notorious Matthew effect, by which eminent scientists get more credit than comparatively unknown researchers for similar work, must have been in evidence. This mechanism might be acceptable in rivalry between senior scholars, but it produces great injustice in the case of youngsters, especially in a highly fragmented Europe.

It is highly dubious that the ERC panellists can detect the most promising researchers. Scholars might know which institutions are the best in their field, but there is no assurance that the younger people there are also the best.

I bear no malice towards the ERC's scientific board members and its 800 assistants by predicting that the 250-odd winners of the present competition will not be selected because of their individual creativity and willingness to break new ground but will be affiliates of well-known senior researchers or connected to the most prominent universities.

It might be that the highest-ranking universities assemble many of the brightest minds, but there is no indication that the distribution of promising young women and men correlates with any of the established rankings. Starting scientists of high potential may be scattered much more evenly throughout Europe.

A tremendous amount of work-time has been wasted by those participating in the first stage of the process alone. I calculate that at least 9,000-person months on the side of the proposal-writing young scientists and about 100 weeks' work-time of Europe's best and most creative senior researchers have been expended. No doubt the well-meaning members of the ERC's scientific board will argue that they could not have foreseen the high number of proposals. But they should have at least considered the possibility.

One cannot but blame the ERC for not thinking ahead. A Green Paper published in April by the European Commission on the perspectives of the European Research Area complains about the fragmentation of the European scientific and research landscape, the lack of a common labour market for academics, their immobility, and so on.

To build a new scheme on such a bumpy foundation has little chance of success because crucial preconditions for peer review - such as fairness and evenly distributed knowledge about the scholarly field at large - do not exist.

Christian Fleck is professor of sociology at the University of Graz and president of the Austrian Sociological Association.

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