Think big to win a share of Europe's pot of gold

Early-career researchers with 'groundbreaking' work may earn an ERC windfall, reports Matt Rooney

August 14, 2008

More than £200 million in research grants is being made available to the most promising early-career researchers under a new round of the European Research Council's starting grants scheme.

The ERC, set up as part of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for research, was launched last year. It aims to fund the best blue-skies research in any EU member state or "associated country" by researchers of any nationality. Scientific excellence is the only criterion the council uses to award funding, said Helga Nowotny, ERC vice-president.

The council has two main funding streams for its programme to invigorate the European research landscape. The starting grants are intended for early-career applicants; advanced grants, which may have a higher value, are aimed at well-established researchers.

Last year's call for starting grants, worth a total of EUR335 million (£264 million), attracted more than 9,000 proposals, only about 300 of which were eventually funded. With 29 winners, Britain came fourth in the league table of successful applicants, after Germany, Italy and France. However, UK institutions topped the table as the most popular location for grant winners to undertake their research, with 59 intending to work in Britain.

This year's call for starting grants, initially worth some EUR296 million but expected to increase in value, was issued on 24 July and closes later this year. The deadlines are staggered, with physical sciences and engineering the first field to close, on 29 October.

As with last year's competition, research in all academic fields is eligible, and the council again intends to award about 300 grants of up to EUR2 million each over five years. But this year there are a number of alterations to the process, designed to cut the number of applicants and reduce wasted effort.

"The high number of applications called for some hard thinking, and the council decided there was a need to introduce clear benchmarks and disincentives for low-quality applications," a senior ERC official said.

The first major change is that the council is being much clearer in its guidelines about the level of excellence expected for successful candidates. "It is really important to stress that the proposals should be for groundbreaking research only," the official said.

In addition, the written application process will this year be made in a single stage, rather than two.

This means that applicants have to present a significant body of work at the very beginning of the process, which may discourage the less committed.

"Casual applicants" seeking to try their luck with a substandard application should also be aware that those who do not get through the first round of vetting will be not be eligible to apply next year.

Controversially, the window of eligibility for applicants has also been trimmed. Previously, applications were welcome from anyone with between two and nine years of postdoctoral experience. This has been reduced to between three and eight years, although exceptions can be made in special circumstances, such as maternity leave.

One British winner from the last round is Duncan Odom, from Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute. He has been awarded a EUR960,000 grant to study genes. He said: "Don't apply unless you have a phenomenal track record. The standard of applicants is exceptionally high." He described the ERC as "revolutionary", adding that he would have found it impossible to find British funds for his ambitious programme of research.

Another of last year's winners is Cathy Craig, from Queen's University Belfast - the only winner from Northern Ireland. She will use her grant to develop a new generation of mobility aids and hopes that the technology will find applications in sport and rehabilitation.

Her advice is to think big. "Go for your dream project. Five years is a long time and you want to be doing something you love," she said.

"Pay very close attention to their assessment criteria and be realistic about your budget. You also want to show how you're building a team. They also want to see (solid) evidence of how you're moving forward."

With starting grants to run annually, the ERC is currently funded until 2013.

Matt Rooney, an engineer at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, is on a placement at Times Higher Education as a Media Fellow with the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

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