ERC to boost EU basic research


A new era in science funding has started this January with the inception of the European research Council (ERC). For the first time, the European Union will channel Euro 7.5 billion of its application-orientated research framework programme into basic research of outstanding excellence. For this year, Euro 292 million have already been earmarked for so-called ‘starting independent researcher grants’ from the Euro 54 billion budget of FP7 (2007-2013), making up one third of the annual Euro 1.25 billion budget of the ERC. In autumn, a second funding scheme termed ‘the advanced investigator grant’ will be introduced. In total, 40% of the ERC’s total budget will be channelled into biological research.

The first call, especially designed for postdoc researchers, was published at the end of December with the aim of supporting independent frontier research. “This is a signal to support not only research into applications but also to back excellent basic research”, said Prof. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the ERC. “Up to now, little money has been allocated particularly to young researchers by the national research agencies. Furthermore, there is a lot of double work in European labs. With the ERC funds, we want to improve this”, stressed Winnacker.
The German science manager will act as an ‘interface’ between the 22 scientific experts of the ERC’s Scientific Council – which is responsible for ERC strategy, and will draft and overview the implementation of the annual working programme and the evaluation process – and an executive agency (dedicated implementation structure (DIS)/directorate S) of currently 85 staff, established by the European Commission. The agency will implement the working programme, the peer review, and the evaluation process.

Criteria for measuring scientific excellence

Currently, 19 thematic interdisciplinary panels of 10 experts each, which will be supported by up to 50 scientific referees each, will evaluate the project proposals in a 2-step procedure after pre-registration.
In the first step, a project outline (excellence, feasibility, methods) and the qualification of the principal investigator (funding ID, high impact publications, ability to initiate new lines of thinking, novelty of approaches), will be evaluated using a score, qualifying applicants with a score higher than 8 to enter phase 2. In the next step, the full proposal including an assessment of the research environment (e.g. infrastructure) and a presentation will be evaluated. The deadline for pre-proposals will be 25 April 2007. It is expected that the ERC will fund about 200 projects with Euro 100,000 to Euro 400,000 per year. The main challenge for the reviewers will be on identifying promising novel research ideas besides the research mainstream.
A similar funding mechanism has been already established by the US National Science Foundation, which supports US basic researchers (NIH-funded projects excluded) with funds of Euro 4.3 billion annually.
However, research excellence will not be the only criterion for research grants. Because the new funding mechanism is part of the European Union’s framework programme FP7 it will suffer from the same political limitations. There will, for example, not be any equal treatment of European researchers working on human embryonic stem cells, due to differences between national legislations.

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