The European Research Council – to ‘retain’, ‘repatriate’ and ‘recruit’ the best brains globally

The European Research Council (ERC) is a new European-level institution launched in November 2006 intended to ‘retain’, ‘repatriate’ and ‘recruit’ the best brains from around the world to work on research in Europe, according to ERC Scientific Council Member, Professor Wendy Hall. In a meeting held at the University of Bristol, Professor Hall outlined the purpose of the ERC – to stimulate investigator-driven ‘frontier’ research across all research fields (the ERC defines frontier research as that which ‘furthers our understanding of science’). Although it is funded by the European Commission (EC) via Framework Programme 7 (FP7), the ERC is autonomous from the EC operating under the leadership of the ERC Scientific Council.

The ERC has established two grant schemes – an ERC Starting Grant and an ERC Advanced Grant.

The ‘Starting Grant’ is intended to support PIs 2-9 years from the award of their PhD, who are at the stage of establishing or consolidating their first research team and moving to a position of independence. Grants can last up to 5 years in duration with total funding of between 500,000 and 2,000,000.

The ‘Advanced Grant’ will support PIs who are already established as independent research leaders. The maximum duration of an Advanced Grant is 5 years, with total funding of between 500,000 and 2,500,000. The first call is due to be launched in November 2007 with a Spring 2008 deadline. It is envisaged that 300 Advanced Grants will be awarded.

Both schemes at present will operate on a ‘bottom-up’ basis, and the ERC has stated that there will be no predetermined topics or thematic priorities, and no geographic spread of allocations to boost areas of low research activity or expenditure. However, it could be argued that there are already priorities in place given that 40% of the pre-allocated budget will go to Life Sciences, 45 % to Physical Sciences, and only 15% to the Social Sciences and Humanities.

The ERC also states that all ERC grants will be awarded solely on the basis of scientific excellence – that is the track record of the Principal Investigator (PI) and the quality of the scientific merit of the proposal. Benchmarks of ‘track record’ for PIs seeking an Advanced Grant will include social citation index ratings, international prizes, granted patents and publishing in peer review journals.

It is clear that while the Council is seeking to attract and reward the ‘best’ and the brightest talent to work in Europe, the funding model will tend to privilege the major centers of research in Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France. This will generate further uneven development across Europe, and undermine the possibilities of creating a social, inclusive and competitive Europe. The ERC’s strategy also raises the important issue of ‘poaching’ talent from low-income countries undermining the development trajectory of regions like Africa, as Alex Nunn’s report shows, particularly as the aim of the ERC is to ‘keep’ these researchers in Europe rather than encouraging them to return home.

We might also question the emphasis on the individual, as the unit of funding, rather than the institution or a team, particularly given that one of the current views on successful innovation and higher education is that sharing and interaction is more important.

Finally, there are emerging differences amongst the institutions involved in promoting the European Higher Education Area and Europe’s knowledge-based economy – with the European University Association favoring a creativity/regions and sharing agenda, while the ERC seems to be promoting a more individualized, ‘ideas’ driven model.

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