Ideas worth millions: ERC celebrates 10 years

Picture credit: Wieland Brendel.

When it comes to research, big money can make a big difference. Our scientists, regardless of whether they are themselves the fortunate awardees of a generous European Research Council (ERC) grant, agree that the ERC is the best science-funding mechanism in Europe. They list few downsides, the main one being that there are too few of them.

Why are ERC grants so great for science? How can more funds be directed in a similar way? Could local governments play a role in doing so? To answer these questions, we spoke with four principal investigators at Champalimaud Research: Marta Moita, Noam Shemesh, Alfonso Renart and Zachary Mainen.

Knocking out all obstacles

ERC grants support individual basic research projects defined as “high risk – high reward”. They look for the brightest minds, with the biggest ideas to drive science forward in Europe, and they give them a lot of money to do that with. Grants come in three flavours: Starting, Consolidator and Advanced, reflecting how long it’s been since the researcher defended his or her PhD thesis.

The amount of money, awarded for a period of five years, goes up with the grade from €1.5 million for Starting grants, to €2 million for Consolidator and €2.5 million for Advanced. These are substantial amounts of money. Just for comparison, another funding scheme of the EU, called Marie Curie, currently awards successful applicants a sum of €40 thousand for a period of two years.

“For me, the ERC changed the picture in an extreme way. It is completely clear to me that without our ERC, we would be 2-3 years behind on our research”,  says Noam Shemesh, who received an ERC Starting grant in 2015 to develop novel imaging techniques.

“Thanks to this grant, we have been able to eliminate most of the factors that limit our research. While the Champalimaud Foundation bought the heavy equipment – top-of-the-art MRI scanners  –  the ERC funds were used to obtain the tools that ensure the scanners are used to their fullest potential. ”

Find out about ERC projects happening at Champalimuad Centre for the Unknown

An ERC grant also gives researchers more than money for equipment and personnel, it also gives them time. In most institutions, research is financed to a large degree by external funds to which individual researchers need to apply. Many of these funds, however, end up being too low, or too short-term, or both, leading researchers to be overwhelmed by having to write grant applications and at times less focused on their research.

Marta Moita, who was awarded an ERC Starting grant in 2013 explains: “I think that the type of science that we do happens on a longer timescale than those covered by many of the grants that are currently available. The ERC is one of the few that is given for a period of five years, which is a more reasonable amount of time.”

“The ERC is a real facilitator. Thanks to this grant, we have been able eliminate most of the factors that limit our research, bringing it to the top 1%.” – Noam Shemesh.

According to Moita, the fact that a large sum of money is awarded for a relatively long duration is exactly what ends up saving time. “Before, we had to pace ourselves, testing one option at a time, hoping that the first one is going to work so that we could spare the money… But then if it didn’t work, we ended up wasting the time of the testing (when we could have been testing something else), and on top of that we had to wait for the next material to arrive. Now, we just order everything we might need and test several alternatives simultaneously. As a result, things move forward much faster.”

The grants also offer the awardees stability, especially the kind that is needed in ambitious projects. “With this grant, I was able to put together an excellent research team that is vital for carrying the research towards scientific breakthroughs”, says Shemesh.

Another advantage of ERC grants is the fact that they are given to one principal investigator, to pursue a specific project. This approach is different from the other main funding scheme of the European Union (EU), which focuses on collaborative projects. These projects, which often involve a minimum of three to five labs and may include dozens, are also set up to answer tough scientific problems. However, the large size of the collaborations can sometimes become a challenge in itself.

Alfonso Renart, principal investigator of the Circuit Dynamics and Computation lab, is involved in one of these big projects, called NeuroSeeker, that aims to develop and test novel neural recording tools to observe brain function. “These types of projects have several goals. One goal is to promote good science, but another goal is to promote collaboration and exchange of ideas across the EU. These goals sometimes conflict with each other, mainly in terms of the efficiency of a project. The ERC doesn’t suffer from this type of problems because it’s just concerned with rewarding capable researchers with bright ideas, which is a very good thing for multiple reasons.”

Casting a wider net: getting more funds to more researchers

According to the ERC, its funding scheme results in many benefits, which include setting a path for promising young investigators, encouraging national investment in science and, most prominently, producing results of high scientific and societal impact.

Given that ERC grants provide such a positive impact overall, many researchers point out that it is unfortunate that the the percentage of awarded grants with respect to the total number of applications evaluated is rather low. For each of the three levels, this success rate is about 10-15%, translating into approximately 900 grants per year. Assuming the size of the ERC overall budget stays the same, what could be done to increase the number of grantees?

Some scientists propose that making a cut in the total grant size might be a way to make room for more researchers. As Moita suggests, “It’s known that choosing the top 20% is feasible, but then choosing the excellent of the excellent becomes circumstantial. So I think we have more to lose by giving so much money to fewer people. There are many projects that could go quite far with a little bit less money.”

“It’s known to that choosing the top 20% is feasible, but then choosing the excellent of the excellent becomes circumstantial. So given that, I think we have more to lose by giving so much money to fewer people.” – Marta Moita.

“Depending on the field, €1 million, for example, may be enough to make a big difference”, Moita adds. “You could have more people going far and that would be beneficial since it’s very difficult to predict which projects will yield really novel findings. So if you diversified who you support, you would probably be more likely to find those surprises.”

Another idea would be for local governments to award funds “to candidates who passed the ERC competitions’ strict quality threshold, but were left unfunded purely due to budgetary constraints”, proposes the ERC. In fact, according to the ERC, “17 European countries have launched initiatives to fund those candidates”. Zachary Mainen, who was awarded two ERC Advanced grants, the most recent one in 2015 to study how serotonin influences brain function and behaviour, points out that “in Portugal, the Fundação para Ciência e Tecnologia could step in and fund the next tier of proposals at a lower value.”

Renart, on the other hand, points out that this issue can be thought of in a different way: instead of trying to increase the number of ERC-type grants, which are very expensive, he suggests that the EU itself sets up a complementary scheme that would fund individual basic research projects with lower sums, thereby supporting a higher number of labs.

“Many EU countries lack complementary funding that supports individual research projects at a lower sum”, he argues. “I think that the main reason the EU doesn’t have a funding scheme to support this type of “second tier” applications is that the EU doesn’t perceive its role is to support the basic research infrastructure in union countries. They feel that is the role of the local government. In fact, in most of the more developed countries that is the way it works. But in some other countries, where governments have had to cut investment in science over the last 10 years or so because they have other priorities, this basic infrastructure is lacking.”

“Still”, he concludes, “the question of what has more impact to the broader scientific community: to concentrate a lot into the surest bets, or to spread a bit more, is still not fully resolved.”




Liad Hollender works as a Science Writer at the Science Communication Office at Champalimaud Research



Edited by: Ana Gerschenfeld & Catarina Ramos(Science Communication office). Picture credit: Wieland Brendel.



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