Redressing the ERC grant geographical imbalance

In its five years of existence, the European Research Council (ERC) has funded over 3,000 top researchers in the EU and its associated countries, with a budget of € 7.5 billion. “Being ‘investigator-driven’, or ‘bottom-up’, the ERC allows researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in all fields of research,” explains ERC-president Helga Nowotny who also works for Vienna Science and Technology Fund and is professor emerita of ETH Zurich, Switzerland. “There are neither thematic priorities, nor geographical quotas for funding,” she adds.

Despite its neutral peer-review-based evaluation, the nature of the ERC award mechanism—solely based on research excellence, academic track record and innovativeness—has, however, led to some discrepancies in the geographical spread of the grants allocation. Aware of the need to redress this imbalance, Nowotny says: “I don’t believe there is one simple solution,” adding: “the situation is more complex.”

Looking at statistics can help gain a better picture of the geographical bias. While researchers based in the UK have received 765 grants so far, researchers in Latvia have received only one. There are also large variations in terms of success rates of grant applications. The success rate varies. It was 16% in France and 14% in the Netherlands and the UK. But it was only 2% in Bulgaria and Poland, and 1% in Slovakia and Slovenia. Romania, Lithuania, Luxemburg and Malta were unsuccessful. This is partly due to the size of the populations and economies of the different countries. But there also are other factors.

Sources of the imbalance

This geographical inconsistency partly stems from the way statistics are drawn. Applications to ERC-competitions are made by individual researchers. But the grant-statistics are based on the location where the research is being conducted, regardless of the nationality of the scientist. “For instance Romania has no grants, but several excellent Romanian scientists who work in another EU country, are ERC-awarded,” says Nowotny.

In addition, ERC candidates could perceive that having a native language different from English, or from the languages of the most influential journals in their field, matters. However, “the language barrier cannot be considered as a real obstacle in the selection,” argues Nowotny. “I agree with the notion that the language barrier itself is not a real obstacle,” says Robert Cailliau, now retired from senior executive functions at CERN and a co-founder of the World Wide Web. However, he believes that the necessary foreign language proficiency, as perceived by candidates and institutions in countries especially in the east of the EU, may diminish ERC grant candidates’ self-confidence. “Since CERN gets its staff primarily by selection from its Member States, we see very similar discrepancies,” he points out.

In principle, individual States’ research policies should no longer matter in the ERC’s supranational approach. “The whole idea behind the ERC program is to take politics out of picture and to fund excellence in research,” notes Donald Canfield, researcher and ecology professor at the University of Southern Denmark, in Odense. However, the reality is that the geographical imbalance may be rooted in the relative research capabilities of individual countries, influencing their competitiveness. “I think it is correct that the broader issue is national funding and research support in the individual countries,” Canfield adds.

Possible solutions

To remedy this problem, Nowotny thinks that a lot is to be done by national politicians and academic boards. “The ERC can only draw attention to the problem,” she says. “We observed a clear correlation pattern between the low success rate in ERC-grants and the level of investment in R&D in certain countries,” she points out. Countries spending less than 1% of their GDP in supporting research get low success rates. She is of the opinion that the overall conditions of research infrastructures as well as the salary levels, the possibility to gain independence and a fair recruitment, are crucial.

Cailliau also believes the main reason for the discrepancies is the difference in attitude of politicians, the overall culture towards science, and the overall conditions of the academic infrastructure. “For example, I consistently saw no student applications from certain countries simply because the university curriculum structure there is such that students cannot spend time away during their studies,” he points out. He also thinks that the research career structure in certain countries probably influences the willingness of researchers to apply and the willingness of institutions to support or even advertise ERC mechanisms.

However, a general rise in the research budget cannot be seen as the unique tool. Some countries do not have a culture of grants application or they lack an advisory institute. Others have a lot of experience in advising applicants and have it institutionalised. For instance, Austrian universities are centrally monitoring information about the ERC applicants. Meanwhile, Poland created a funding agency modelled after the ERC for fundamental scientific research.

Even though the uneven distribution of ERC grants cannot be resolved overnight, Nowotny concludes that being unsuccessful in getting an ERC grant, could still open the door to national funding. Portugal and Sweden, for example, started national programs to fund ERC-reserve list candidates. “Some proposals we turned down for granting still contain promising aspects,” she says, “ we share this information with host institutions which can then decide to fund research that did not obtain ERC-support, although they got close to it during the evaluation.”

Featured image credit: Heimo Aga

Koen Mortelmans

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