One in five ERC-funded projects ‘makes scientific breakthrough’

Further 50 per cent of EU-backed schemes result in ‘major scientific advance’

August 2, 2016
Man metal detecting on beach
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One in five projects funded by the European Research Council in the past decade has led to a major scientific breakthrough, a study suggests.

An ERC-commissioned peer review evaluation of a sample of 199 projects funded by the council since 2007, which looked at publications, patents and commercial applications, judged that 43 (21.6 per cent) had resulted in a significant breakthrough.

A further 99 (49.7 per cent) were thought to have resulted in a “major scientific advance”.

Fifty projects (25.1 per cent) made an “incremental scientific contribution” – a result that the review says could still lead to more substantial impact in the longer term – while seven (3.5 per cent) were found to have resulted in “no appreciable scientific contribution”.

The review also considered the impact that ERC-funded projects had had on the economy, society and policymaking, and judged that just under 10 per cent had already had a large impact, and nearly half had made at least some impression, with more significant results expected to emerge in the longer term.

The study, launched at the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester, cautions that the results “cannot necessarily be extrapolated to the full set of ERC-funded projects”.

But Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC, described the results as “very instructive”.

“This pilot study shows that betting on ambitious high-risk/high-gain frontier research, by means of peer review, truly pays off,” Professor Bourguignon said. “This is crucial for Europe, especially as not only the scientific impact but also the economic and societal benefits are clearly major.”

The ERC has funded about 6,000 projects since it was founded in 2007, more than 500 of which had concluded by the end of 2014.

UK-based academics have traditionally been the biggest winners from the scheme, securing 23.7 per cent of grants awarded in 2014.

The ERC has a budget of more than €13 billion (£11 billion) for the years 2014 to 2020, and announced its 2017 grant competition, valued at €1.8 billion, on 25 July.

But the UK’s future participation in the scheme remains in doubt after the country’s vote to leave the European Union.

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Reader's comments (2)

I would love to read their definition of "scientific breakthrough"! It would be interesting to have a real assessment of the added value of the ERC program taking into account the negatives - the many hours wasted on writing proposals, both accepted and rejected. I am all in favour of Europe but my slight involvement in the ERC program is that it might have been designed to disgust any europhile tendencies.
Hours wasted on proposals is not going to be a uniquely ERC problem. Furthermore other funding bodies will have their own successes and failures which is the absolute nature of 'research'. Your statement is probably a little unfair since they have defined their own criteria for success (their definition of "scientific breakthrough" - remember this is a magazine article) for projects all over Europe without even considering the political situation. I don't understand how it would 'disgust any europhile tendencies' either? Take home message is probably the last paragraphs of the article where it is making the point that whilst UK based researchers have been successful in applying for this funding in recent history our eligibility as a result of the referendum result is not as-of-yet clear. The author is making the case for ERC grant value against the possibility that UK researchers may not be allowed to apply for this - not the ERC.

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