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The blue marble

European Research Council tours Australia

The Headquarters of the European Research Council Executive Agency in Brussels. (c) ERC

The Secretary General of the European Research Council (ERC), Prof. Donald B. Dingwell, is visiting Australia as part of a global campaign to raise awareness on the opportunities to participate in this exciting science funding program .

Prof. Donald B. Dingwell, Secretary General of the European Research Council. (c) ERC

In Australia during a “marathon tour” between October 2 and 11, Prof. Dingwell will meet the Australian Academy of Science (ARC), Australian Antarctic Division and a number of universities (Australia National University, University of Adelaide, Monach University, University of Melbourne, Sunshine Coastal University, University of Queensland, University of Sydney, University of Tasmania and the University of Western Australia). In this tour Prof. Dingwell will be accompanied by Dr. Gemma Solomon, who was granted a Starting Grant in 2010 to study how molecules carrying current heat up and cool down, potentially paving the way to new frontiers in power-generating materials, which she is developing in the University of Copenhagen.

Dr. Dr Gemma Solomon is an Australian scientist leading an ERC grant at the University of Copenhagen.

This tour offers a great opportunity for Australian researchers to learn how to become involved in EU-funded research and profit from its attractive funding. Secondly, the visit will allow Australia research funding organizations , such as the ARC, to be updated on the major effort done to streamline the application and review processes to the highest efficiency ever achieve in the EU, or worldwide. Indeed, I have drawn attention in the past to the ERC program as one that has managed to minimize all unnecessary red tape, and thereby avoiding loss of productivity by all involved in the process. Moreover, the ERC provides generous budgets, from 2 million euros to 3.5 million euros, to individual researchers at the start of or advanced in their careers, respectively. Furthermore, reviewers and evaluation panels are instructed not to trim budgets, unlike the usual 30 to 40 % trimming in the Australian ARC.

Since its inception in 2007, the ERC executes the IDEAS program of the Research Framework Program of the EU, aimed at supporting excellence in research. Although part of the EU’s Framework Program, the European Research Council schemes are open to participation of scientists from around the world. In fact, the motto on the ERC’s web page reads “Supporting Top Researchers from Anywhere in the World”, with the sole requirement that they should have at least a part-time appointment with a research institute belonging to the EU and spend substantial time in Europe during the length of the grant.

Being ‘investigator-driven’ and ‘bottom-up’, in nature, the ERC approach allows researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in any field of research, from social sciences and humanities to high-energy physics and life sciences, rather than being led by priorities set by politicians. This approach ensures that funds are channeled(?) into new and promising areas of research with a greater degree of flexibility.

ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by earl-career and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe - the sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence. The aim here is to recognise the best ideas, and retain and confer status and visibility to the best brains in Europe, while also attracting talent from abroad.

However, the ERC aims to do more than simply fund research. In the longer term, it looks to substantially strengthen and shape the European research system, and as a matter of fact already does so (?). This is done through high quality peer review, the establishment of international benchmarks of success, and the provision of up-to-date information on who is succeeding in its highly competitive funding calls and why.

The total budget allocated to the ERC for the period 2007 to 2013 was € 7.5 billion, with a substantial increase anticipated under the new Framework Program, ‘Horizon 2020’, between 2014 and 2020.

Since 2007, more than 3,860 projects have been selected for funding from more than 43,000 applications. The success of the ERC is for instance indicated by the fact that it counts seven Nobel laureates and three Fields Medalists among its grant holders, and that over 10,000 articles have been published acknowledging ERC-funding in peer-reviewed high impact journals between 2008 and 2011, including papers published every week in the top interdisciplinary journals, such as Nature and Science.

The impact of ERC goes beyond the specific outcomes of the projects to serve as a mechanism to render excellence a ‘contagious disease’. Each ERC grantee employs on average six team members, thus contributing to training a new generation of excellent researchers. By 2013, it is estimated that the ERC will have funded over 4 000 grantees and will have supported some 23,500 other team members, offering cutting-edge research training for nearly 7,000 doctoral students and 9,000 postdoctoral researchers from around the world.

Because of these achievements during its seven years of existence, the ERC has established itself as a benchmark against which national and international programs and institutions compare the effectiveness of their own programs and the quality of their researchers.

Australian scientists are not alien to the ERC, as the ERC already supports projects lead by 21 Australian scientists. However, the excellence of Australian scientists suggests that this number could be much higher, hence the visit of Prof. Dingwell. The benefit of a broader engagement of Australian scientists will extend beyond the benefits of the individual grants and the opportunities to bring excellent ideas to live, as participation in the ERC will provide close connections with European research networks, which is also beneficial for the internationalization strategies of Australian institutions.

Disclosure: Carlos M. Duarte is a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council

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