UK collects jackpot from ERC

British-based academics beat continental rivals but low number of female winners worries funders. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 20, 2008

The UK is the biggest winner in a EUR542 million (£460 million) grant-award scheme for established researchers run by the European Research Council.

The result will be encouraging for researchers based in the UK looking to apply to the second round of the scheme, which opened this week.

UK-based researchers came first in the league table of successful applicants, beating France, Switzerland and Germany. British institutions also topped the table as the most popular location for grant winners to undertake their research.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, secretary general of the ERC, said the UK had a lot to be proud of. "Obviously you have some really outstanding institutions where people would love to work and (the awards) are well deserved," he said.

He also singled out Switzerland, the Netherlands and Israel as doing "particularly well" in view of their population size.

He noted other institutions that had shone in the competition, including the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and its sister institution in Lausanne; and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Of at least 5 "advanced investigator grants" covering all subjects awarded by the ERC, UK-based researchers won 56 (20 per cent) and British institutions will host 58 (21 per cent). The award is based solely on scientific excellence.

In total, there were 2,167 proposals vying for the awards, each of which is worth up to EUR3.5 million over five years.

The second most successful applicants were researchers based in France, who won 32 awards (12 per cent); and French institutions will host 35 (13 per cent) of the projects. Researchers based in Switzerland and Germany each won 26 awards (9 per cent) and their institutions will, respectively, host 28 and 26 of the projects. Another 65 proposals passed the quality threshold but could not be funded owing to budgetary constraints.

The ERC was launched last year to fund the best blue-skies research in any European Union member state or "associated country". It has two funding streams: starting grants intended for early-career researchers and advanced grants for established researchers. The awards are given to individuals rather than institutions, so researchers are free to move to another country to conduct research.

In the UK, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford will host the largest number of advanced awards, followed by the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh (see table). Among the other winners are the universities of Huddersfield and Plymouth.

Professor Winnacker said the ERC was concerned that the overall proportion of female winners was low (under 12 per cent). "We cannot really be much better than the system itself ... (but) we (want to) make it clear that this is unbearable and the host institutions (need) to do something about it," he said.

He said the ERC was considering only "slight changes" for the 2009 round of the scheme, such as spreading the selection process more evenly between panels. But there could be changes to budgets the following year in order to reduce the money given in advanced grants and increase the sum available for starting grants - the former currently take two thirds of the ERC budget.

"Maybe we will go down to 60 per cent (advanced) and 40 per cent (starting)," he said, adding that many member states neglected to support young scientists. He said the 2009 call for advanced grants, valued at the same amount as this year, would have deadlines throughout spring 2009.

One established UK-based researcher to win an award in the interdisciplinary category is Helen Gilbert, a professor of theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

She will use the money to recruit six early-career researchers to examine the impact of contemporary performance in different countries. She said the secret to winning the grant had been to make sure the project was solidly presented and structured, as well as interesting, innovative and ambitious.

"It is a project that has been in the back of my mind for a long time, but I had never conceived it in these ambitious terms before," she said.

Didn’t they do well
UK institutionNumber of ERC %3Cbr /%3Eadvanced grants (2008)
Imperial College London7
University of Oxford7
University of Cambridge5
University of Edinburgh5
University College London4
University of St Andrews3
University of Bristol2
University of Exeter2
Medical Research Council2
University of Nottingham2
University of Sheffield2
University of Surrey2
Aberystwyth University1
University of Dundee1
Goldsmiths, University of London1
University of Huddersfield1
John Innes Centre1
University of Leeds1
University of Liverpool1
London School of Economics1
University of Manchester1
University of Plymouth1
Royal Holloway, University of London1
Sainsbury Laboratory1
University of Strathclyde1
University of Warwick1
University of York1
Source: derived from European Research Council statistics

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