ERC launched today

The first day in the life of the European funding agency for basic research is marked by optimism, assuaged concerns.

Feb 27, 2007
Andrew Scott

After years of campaigning and controversy, the European Research Council (ERC) was formally launched at a conference in Berlin today (February 27). The event, creating the first pan-European funding agency that can award grants for basic research based solely on peer review, was met with seemingly widespread enthusiasm from the life sciences community.

Scientists seeking European Commission (EC) funding have generally had to negotiate application processes which many view as too political, rather than science-based -- constrained by such details as which of the Commission's priorities each proposal can be made to fit. Different member states want to see fair return to their own countries for the money they each contribute, and EC funding has traditionally been focused on applied and industrial projects. The ERC, in contrast, pledges to prioritize basic research, and award grants based solely on projects' scientific merits, not politics.

"The most important added value of a world-class European organization like the ERC will be its role as a model for best practice and as a catalyst for change at national levels in Europe," Fotis Kafatos, president of the ERC and chairman of its Scientific Council, told The Scientist.

The ERC has 7.5 billion Euros ($9.9 billion US) to support it through its first seven years, although campaigning to increase that budget has already begun. The grants will provide each recipient with between 500,000 and 2 million Euros ($660,000 -- $2.6 million US) to support their work for up to five years. Around 200 grants are expected to be awarded each year, and the first call for proposals is now open to researchers who gained their PhDs between two and nine years ago.

Researchers from outside Europe are eligible to apply so long as they plan to move to work at a European host organization. "The ERC actively encourages researchers to come and work in Europe," Kafatos said in an Email.

The ERC is part of the EC's "Seventh Research Framework Programme" (FP7). Scientists have warned that including the ERC in FP7 could make the organization vulnerable to bureaucracy and politics, but say they are less concerned now that the ERC's sole criterion for awarding grants will be scientific excellence. Scientists themselves have gained a major role in designing the ERC's operating procedures, particularly through their participation in the ERC Expert Group, noted Fotis Kafatos, which has helped enable the organization to sidestep political and bureaucratic concerns.

Chris Leaver, chair of the UK Biochemical Society, voiced grave doubts about plans for the ERC in the past, but said he now welcomes the way it has turned out. "It looks much better than I had feared," Leaver told The Scientist in an Email.

Other key players in the European life sciences community share what appears to be a widespread enthusiasm. "I do think the ERC will have the independence required [to focus only on scientific excellence]," Julio Celis, president of the European Life Sciences Forum, told The Scientist. "I think out of the various possibilities [for the ERC's structure] the best was found...everything is going to depend on the quality and excellence of the research."

Compared to other funding arrangements, the ERC "is a tremendous improvement," Kai Simons, president of the European Life Scientist Organization (ELSO) told The Scientist in an Email. "ELSO welcomes the ERC and will be fighting for more funding for it."

Initially, the ERC will be responsible for only around 15% of EC science funding, and EC funding accounts for only about 5% of the total budget of all the national science funding programs of EU member states. A second ERC call for proposals towards the end of 2007 will offer Advanced Investigator Grants to established top research leaders.