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Concern over rate of ERC Advanced Grants awarded to repeat winners

More than 40 per cent of 2018 life sciences Advanced Grants awarded to previous recipients

Concerns have been raised over the fact that one in four European Research Council Advanced Grants are now being awarded to researchers who have won one previously.

This repeat-winner rate risks turning these prestigious awards of up to €3.5 million for experienced researchers into a self-sustaining club, say critics.

In 2018, the most recent year for which ERC data are available, 26 per cent of Advanced Grants went to previous winners. This rose to 43 per cent in all life sciences, and 67 per cent in two of the nine life sciences panels.

The trend was identified by Gavin Thomson, managing director of the funding consultancy HELIX European Advisory Services. “Some panels appeared far more open to second awards than others,” he said.

Like all ERC grants, Advanced Grants are evaluated by subject-specific panels. They are highly competitive, with only about 10-15 per cent of proposals winning funding in recent years.

Pere Puigdomènech, a plant geneticist at the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona who chaired an Advanced Grant life sciences panel in 2017, said a repeat award rate of 40 per cent could lead researchers to view the ERC as being for “a limited group of privileged scientists”.

Elena Conti, director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich, also chaired a life sciences panel in 2017. She said she wrote to the ERC’s governing Scientific Council in 2018 stating that while her panel assumed a previous grant was neither a positive nor a negative, it particularly scrutinised applications from previous winners, and this is “essential to ensure balanced participation of the entire scientific community…and to avoid ERC advanced grants becoming an exclusive, self-renewing club”.

The ERC said it “is aware of these statistics and takes them into account in its policymaking”. But it said each proposal is judged on its merits, irrespective of whether the applicant had won an Advanced Grant before, and that as a bottom-up funder it “has little control of the number of applications or proportion of past grantees to which it awards grants”.

Conti said that in her field the bar was set too high and “many superb scientists are simply not applying for advanced grants”.

Puigdomènech said awarding lower sums could increase the number of grants and thus first-time winners. “The limiting factor is the money not the quality.”  

This article also appeared in Research Europe