Go back

Out of its own league

After 10,000 grants, the European Research Council must rejuvenate

During its first few months of existence, the European Research Council was received with veiled derision by many national funders. Some likened it to a road sweeper—ready to pick up those researchers who failed to win funds from the champions. “It’ll be mainly used for the also-rans,” said one manager of a top German funding institution in 2007. “The ERC can finance the proposals we reject.”

Fast-forward 14 years and 10,000 grants, and the ERC has made its detractors eat their words. The funder’s stellar rise to international scientific prominence is a unique story of vision, determination and excellent administration. From the start, the council’s funding streams were clearly defined, the budgets were generous and the project choices memorable. Combined with an emphasis on science communication unheard of at many national funders, the ERC had found a winning formula. 

But the higher you climb the further you can fall, and the ERC is showing signs of teetering. As its popularity has grown, application numbers to the council have risen, and success rates have become so small that some researchers do not bother applying. The council has also turned into a facilitator of brain-drain—since the grants are portable, many winning scientists from the newer EU nations up sticks and move to better laboratories in richer countries. 

There have been administrative problems, too. After strong growth under presidents Helga Nowotny and Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the ERC has been without a permanent leader since its latest president, Mauro Ferrari, stepped down in April 2020 after just three months in the role, over a disagreement with the organisation’s scientific council on funding Covid-19 work. 

Bourguignon has laudably stepped back into the breach on an interim basis, but these individual struggles add up to indicate an organisation at a crossroads. The ERC’s steep upward trajectory—both in terms of resources and reputation—is levelling out. The funder needs to complete its transformation from hip new kid on the block to reliable statesman of European research. 

In this context, the search for a new president comes at a good time. The incoming candidate will head an organisation that is strong enough to pull rank in science but is still in flux, so that necessary changes will be possible to implement. But there are serious hurdles to overcome. The ERC’s stellar reputation is under threat after more than a year without a permanent leader, and with success rates for advanced grants now at their lowest level. 

A mentorship scheme introduced in February may go some way towards making access to funds fairer, but the low success rates risk putting more researchers off applying. And the organisation’s decision not to fund specific Covid-19 research—in keeping with its commitment to excellence as the only funding criteria—may have given it an air of aloofness at a time of global crisis. 

Still, for 10,000 grants, the ERC has consistently proven it can not only meet the challenges it faces but also find ways to innovate itself in the process. The next president will have a lot of ground to cover—but they will do so in a racecar, not a road sweeper. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe