Research intelligence - Euro funding star in the ascendant

ERC leader Helga Nowotny talks to Paul Jump about concentration, competition and the future

March 15, 2012

Presidential presence: Helga Nowotny has led the European Research Council to a position of international pre-eminence

Research council heads could be forgiven for thinking that enduring a constant barrage of heckling from academics is an inevitable part of the job. Yet while the denizens of Swindon's Polaris House - where the UK's councils are based - have spent the past few years defending themselves against accusations of managerialism, political pandering and even incompetence, the European Research Council has grown from what some scorned as an ugly duckling into something widely hailed as the swan of global funders.

The ERC focuses on funding individuals conducting what it calls "frontier" - or basic - research, selected exclusively on the basis of scientific excellence. Those chosen by its international peer-review panels are awarded five years of generous funding that is portable across borders.

As Times Higher Education reported last week, Helga Nowotny, the ERC's president, used her keynote address at the organisation's fifth anniversary conference earlier this month to reaffirm the approach and to rebut any suggestion that ERC funding should be more informed by "impact".

In an interview with THE after her address, Professor Nowotny also dismissed the suggestion that the "proof of concept" grants introduced by the ERC last year - which aim to help existing grantees "make a first step towards bringing good ideas to market" - amount to a concession to impact.

She pointed out that the scheme was very small in financial terms and had modest ambitions. She also said she was not surprised to find that the UK and the Netherlands had won most of the grants thus far, since both nations already had a culture of "mixing and mingling" between the academy and industry.

"We hope some other countries will also realise they need to do more, but it is not our task to push them in this direction," she said.

Last year the ERC also launched "synergy grants" aimed at funding groups of up to four principal investigators to address questions in ways they could not do alone. But it shares none of the network-building motivation that has informed other European Union funding schemes reserved for multiple applicants.

"We will throw out anything that smells of a consortium," Professor Nowotny insisted. Besides, she added, only 15 grants were being offered, although that did not stop more than 700 applications being submitted. This was partly attributable to a "gesture of desperation" from a large number of Italian applicants concerned about the effect of the economic crisis on domestic funding for basic research.

She said similar concerns from the Nordic countries in the mid-2000s provided the impetus for the ERC's establishment. But it took Achilleas Mitsos, former director general of the European Commission's research directorate, to make the political case for the "added value" required of European-level funding, arguing that distributing grants in an open competition would motivate institutions across the Continent to raise their games.

According to Professor Nowotny, the UK and Germany did not feel the need for such a carrot and were highly sceptical that a Brussels-based body could rival (never mind surpass) their own national standards of excellence.

Yet the UK in particular has benefited from the fact that - much to the chagrin of some less well-performing member states - ERC funding is awarded with no thought for the location of the applicant. Hence, in recent years, 21 per cent of starting grants (aimed at early career researchers) and 23 per cent of advanced grants (aimed at senior researchers) have gone to UK-based academics. The second most successful nations in the two categories - France and Germany respectively - attracted 14 and 15 per cent.

Message for the home secretary

ERC grant figures also eloquently demonstrate the extent to which both UK and Swiss institutions benefit from the large number of high-quality foreign researchers they attract (see right). UK nationals won just 9 per cent of starting grants, compared with 16 per cent by Germans and 11 per cent by Italian and French scholars. However, Britons won an impressive 20 per cent of advanced grants compared with 15 per cent by Germans and 11 per cent by French researchers.

Professor Nowotny also pointed out that although the 2,500 grants distributed so far by the ERC had been spread among 480 institutions, 50 per cent of the ERC's budget had been allocated to 50 institutions.

"Concentration is a fact of life and it is important scientifically. There is a core of excellent institutions and we know where they are; this won't change," she said.

She also admitted that some institutions struggled to understand and follow ERC procedures and needed to be "educated" how to do so - although she insisted that the administrative burden attending ERC funding was much less onerous than it had been during the organisation's early days.

Nevertheless, the ERC had had an impact on general standards "far beyond" expectations, with a number of countries even establishing their own competitive funding bodies modelled on it. For this reason, she hoped and expected to see "more upward and downward mobility" among European institutions in terms of ERC grants won.

Professor Nowotny is keen to use the grants to attract more top international researchers to the EU. But she insisted that the ERC was not in the "brain-drain business", arguing that the requirement for the researchers it funds to spend 50 per cent of their time within the EU allowed them to maintain links with their home institutions.

The European Commission proposes to increase the ERC's budget by 77 per cent in the next seven-year funding cycle, taking it to €13 billion (£11 billion). This would see its share of the total EU budget for research and innovation rise from 13.6 to 16.5 per cent. But Professor Nowotny downplayed the increase, saying merely that she could "live with it" given the economic crisis, since it would keep the ERC's budget on its current upward trajectory.

Given uncertainty over whether the proposal will be accepted by national governments, she said she was not making plans about how any increase might be spent. But she added that she was happy with the current split of spending, with 58 per cent of the ERC's budget allocated to starting grants.

Professor Nowotny also rejected the idea of establishing a funding scheme for mid-career researchers who are neither junior enough for starting grants nor senior enough for advanced grants. She likened such people to silver medallists in sport, who, in her view, are always the most dissatisfied people on the podium.

There was only one remedy for such dissatisfaction, she said: "Try again and become number one."


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