Challenges for New ERC President

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Science  24 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6169, pp. 351
DOI: 10.1126/science.1250820

This month, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon began his tenure as president of the European Research Council (ERC). This is a daunting task for many reasons: The growing ERC budget requires that it be carefully positioned within a complex array of European funding opportunities; embedding the presidential role into the ERC executive agency in the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation potentially reduces ERC's independence; and variable success rates for acquiring ERC funding are concerning, and research expectations will need to be managed.

The ERC provides competitive funding for researchers worldwide, with no thematic top-down steers. Most awards are allocated through starting grants for early-career scientists and advanced grants for senior scientists. “Synergy” and “proof-of-concept” schemes have been added recently, although Bourguignon acknowledges that they have had mixed success.* The 60% increase in the ERC budget to around €13 billion (€1.8 billion per year from 2014 to 2021) has been welcomed by researchers, particularly because the ERC is regarded as relatively unbureaucratic, focused on excellence, and encouraging of innovative ideas.

Simultaneously, there are many excellence-focused national funding programs, and the ERC needs to meld sensibly into this complex environment. ERC support for basic research should complement and not replace national project-based competitive funding. In many respects, the ERC has been modeled on best national practices, and one priority is that the ERC discuss future strategic directions with the national funding agencies that are represented through Science Europe. Funding for basic research is considerably larger from national agencies. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft alone, only one of the major agencies in Germany, has a 2014 budget of €2.78 billion for bottom-up research; any thematic decisions result from consultation with the German research community. With such opportunities for “curiosity-driven” research in each European country, it is evident that the ERC needs to continue to articulate its added value. For example, unlike national schemes, it is open to researchers worldwide, but the number of such grantees remains lower than might be hoped.


Another challenge is that Bourguignon's predecessor, Helga Nowotny, provided high-profile leadership that benefited from her relative independence from the European Commission. Although the decision to embed the new president within the ERC Executive Agency in the Commission—merging the Secretary General and presidential functions—may provide administrative benefits, Bourguignon's ability to represent the voice of the research community in such a political role will be questioned, which he recognizes.*

There are also contentious practical challenges, acknowledged by the ERC. Low overall success rates (8.6% for starting grants and 11.8% for advanced grants in 2013) and the gender bias in applications and success run the risk of disillusioning applicants, especially were these to fall further. Moreover, although the ERC budget has increased, the 2014 budget is fairly similar to that in 2013, due to the ramped funding profile during the Seventh Framework Programme. This means that opportunities are not substantially greater this year and that “expectations management” will be necessary, such as the recent tightening of rules for resubmitting applications. Managing interdisciplinary applications will continue to be challenging, because ERC funding is allocated through three discipline-specific budget lines, and the review process requires experts in evaluating such multifaceted proposals. The low success rates for starting and advanced grants in the social sciences and humanities raise questions about whether the funding caps in these areas need revisiting. And with more than half of the 2012 starting grant awards secured by the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the Netherlands alone, there is concern about researcher concentration, especially because ERC grants are portable between institutions.

ERC is but one part of an excellence-focused European funding environment. By focusing the ERC on its strengths, I am confident that Jean-Pierre Bourguignon will manage this exciting new funding phase with aplomb.*

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