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Rationale behaviour

What a report on assessment changes means for your bid

In February, European Research Council president Maria Leptin presented a report detailing some of the cogitations of the ERC’s Scientific Council as it drew up recent changes to assessment procedures, which have now come into force. 

Certainly, some passages of that report will only be of interest to those looking to attain the most intimate understanding of the ERC’s workings. But other sections should be taken into account by those preparing ERC applications or those helping others to do so, as they provide useful prompts on how to attack an application under the new system. Here are five takeaways.

1. Tighter focus on scientific excellence, broader accept­ance of context

The opening summary does a good job of outlining the top-level considerations that underpin the changes. Two key points emerge. 

First, there is renewed focus on ‘scientific excellence’ as the ultimate criterion by which all applications are judged, and this plays out in the removal of assessment elements that may bias assessors against applicants from “less well-known institutions or isolated locations”. As the report states, “the panels will primarily evaluate the ground-breaking nature, ambition and feasibility of the research project”.

Second, there is the acknow­ledgment “that current research assessment systems often use inappropriate and narrow methods to assess the quality, performance and impact of research and researchers”. This is particularly important with regard to the assessment of researchers. As such, the evaluation changes allow applicants more leeway in how they present their research experience (see point five).

2. Forget ‘high risk, high gain’

The ERC has long been associated with the phrase ‘high risk, high gain’, but no longer—it has been dropped from guidance. The report states: “The possibility that a project will not fulfil its aims is inherent in frontier research, but this possibility means the results cannot be predicted.”

Preliminary data are important, the report continues, and where those data suggest there is a high probability that the applicant’s project will succeed, they can only be beneficial to an application. So instead of aiming towards ‘high-risk, high-gain’ research, the report suggests that “ambitious, creative and original” are better watchwords that applicants should keep in mind.

3. Methods matter

The report contains a brief and worthwhile discussion of whether the development of novel methodologies might be an intrinsic feature of an excellent proposal. It concludes not, which is why this element has been removed from evaluators’ guidance. Yet those working at the frontiers of methodological innovation should not lose heart. The ERC remains alive to the fact that “new methodologies can allow longstanding problems or questions to be tackled, and developing them is therefore crucial for advancing knowledge”.

4. Academic leadership is not a central concern

The fact that the ERC, unlike other mechanisms of Horizon Europe, awards grants for individual researchers may lead some to assume it will reward those who could demonstrate some degree of professional or academic—rather than scientific—leadership. But this is not so—the report dismisses “academic leadership roles” as not vitally relevant to assessments for ERC grants, although it later states they may be peripherally relevant.

Instead, it may serve applicants well to keep this statement from the Scientific Council at the forefront of their minds: “Overall, we agreed that the emphasis of the assessment of the principal investigator should continue to be on whether they had demonstrated the ability to carry out ambitious and challenging research and had thereby contributed to advancing knowledge in their field.”

5. Use your best outputs

Regarding assessment of the applicant, the report provides a useful summary of the sections of the new application template.

This summary reiterates the broadening of assessment criteria for individuals, with the acknowledgment that “ground-breaking discoveries may only have been posted on preprint servers and been published in specialist journals, while others may be in entirely different formats, and in some disciplines national publications may be the most relevant and important”.

While the report does not say so directly, it would be hard to reach any other conclusion than that applicants should make full use of this greater leeway and not continue to focus solely on classic peer-reviewed publications in big-name journals.

A similar logic would apply to other elements of personal presentation. The report says that after deliberation, the Scientific Council came out in favour of allowing applicants to include “engagement in peer review, teaching, academic leadership and other contributions” in their narrative CV, and it would therefore make sense for applicants to include these elements where appropriate.

But they should not try to over­­sell their accomplishments: “Experience at the ERC shows that panels are wary of boastful applications.” 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com