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Punching above their weight

The ‘big three’ nations may have won the most Starting Grants announced last week by the European Research Council. But as Inga Vesper reports, a comparison of successes per head of population tells a different story.

Europe’s big three—Germany, France and the UK—sometimes seem to have it all, money, power and ERC Starting Grants. In this year’s Starting Grant round, announced on 10 September, the UK swept the board, with 131 grants out of 536. Germany and France followed at some distance, hosting 78 and 73 grants respectively. The Netherlands got 51, Switzerland 33.

But the UK, Germany and France have the most people, too and so maybe a better comparison of who’s succeeding can be obtained by dividing the number of winners by each country’s population.

Once you do that, it becomes the most research-intensive countries that top the league. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Israel are ahead—all of whom are small, spend lots of their own GDP on R&D (4.7 per cent in Israel’s case, 2.9 per cent in Switzerland’s) and enjoy a rich scientific reputation.

Are these Europe’s true research leaders, then? The top five in our ranking are among Europe’s strongest countries for basic research as well as for innovation. Their performances easily outstrip those of France and Germany—both of whom are engaged in extensive reforms to try to strengthen their leading research universities.

In some cases, the very smallness of some of the top performers may be assisting their ERC performance. The domestic funding options for researchers in Switzerland, for example, are fewer than those in Germany. In some fields, in the smaller countries, researchers are maybe more likely to have to look abroad for their funding. This, as well as high levels of excellence and expectations of success, could help account for the higher application rate per total number of researchers that is also seen in smaller countries.

ERC grants are now keenly sought after by researchers in every member state. But the boost they bring to researchers’ careers may be even greater in some of the smaller countries. “There is an issue of how much winning an ERC grant helps your career,” says Iain Mattaj, the director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Germany. “This effect is much bigger in smaller countries and those with limited national funding than in big countries.”

The UK, of course, has a large population, but is still close to the top of the league. According to the ERC, the application rate from researchers in the UK is very high compared with the total number of researchers there, and the quality of the applications is also very good. The same tendency can be observed in general Framework 7 applications, where proposals with a British leader and proposal writer have a high chance of winning funding.

“The tendency of researchers based in different countries to apply to the ERC varies greatly and again depends on many factors such as the availability of national funding and whether research budgets are rising or falling in that country,” says Helga Nowotny, the president of the ERC.

However, not much has changed at the bottom of our alternative ranking. The five countries that won the fewest ERC grants, Greece, Hungary, Turkey, Poland and Slovakia, stay as the bottom five, although their order changes. It is not hard to see why these countries come bottom. Research spending as a proportion of GDP is small, for example, it’s about 0.5 per cent in Poland, and most of them have rather weak research support systems.

A low success rate in winning and hosting Starting Grants, however, can have a positive effect on a country. Polish scientists, for example, have shouted out loud about their lack of success, and may be getting some results: Poland’s government has announced that it is working on a strategy for basic research in the country, which may lead to at least a modest increase in funding.