2012 was the year that the European Research Council (ERC) celebrated its 5th birthday. Although 5 years is still short for a sound evaluation of enduring effects, it is a good time to assess whether the ERC is set on the right track to deliver on its mission.
What is ERC’s mission?
ERC’s stated mission is and should be very ambitious: “the ERC aims at reinforcing excellence, dynamism and creativity in European research by funding investigator-driven projects of the highest quality at the frontiers of knowledge”.
The ERC's research grants operate on a 'bottom-up' basis without predetermined priorities. Researchers from anywhere in the world can apply provided their host institution is established in a Member State or an Associated Country.
Scientific excellence is the sole selection criterion. In particular, high risk/high gain pioneering proposals which go beyond the state of the art, address new and emerging fields of research, introduce unconventional, innovative approaches are encouraged.
By challenging the brightest minds, where ever they come from, the ERC expects that “its grants will help to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries - the kind that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future”.
The ERC does not aim to substitute for existing national and European funds, but rather to complement existing research funding streams. Like no other existing national and European funds, it can establish world class benchmarks of excellence in the research it funds, if only by the virtue of its scale, pooling a large set of applications. Its larger scale particularly allows taking on board path-breaking projects. Given these are more rare and higher risk projects, they are more difficult for any local scheme to deal with.
Does the ERC has the modus operandus to achieve its mission?
The ERC consists of an independent Scientific Council, responsible for scientific strategy and an administrative arm, the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA). The total budget allocated to the ERC from the FP7 for the period 2007 to 2013 is € 7.5 billion.
Three grants schemes are its core instruments: starting grants, consolidator grants and advanced grants. As a pilot, the ERC currently also runs a synergy grants program to promote trans- and inter-disciplinary cooperation. And in 2011, a Proof of Concept funding was introduced, giving ERC grant holders to apply for additional funding to establish the innovation potential of ideas arising from their ERC-funded frontier research projects.
The evaluation of ERC grant applications is conducted by peer review panels composed of renowned scientists and scholars selected by the ERC Scientific Council. The panels are assisted by remote referees. Reviewers are asked to evaluate the proposals on their ground breaking nature, their level of ambition to go beyond the state of the art and push the frontier.
Is the ERC on track to deliver on its mission ?
Up till now the ERC has granted more than 3000 projects from more than 31000 applications in 10 calls. The ERC estimates that by the end of 2013, it will have provided support to more than 10,000 doctoral students and more than 5,000 postdocs.
With respect to excellence, ERC funding is already acknowledged in more than 5000 articles in the better scientific journals with high scientific impact. It hosts among its grantees 5 Nobel prizes and 3 Fields Medalists. These early quantitative results already bode well for the ERC’s capacity to deliver on its mission. But it clearly awaits a full fledged rigorous evaluation with proper counterfactuals. To this end, the ERC has set up, on its own initiative, a whole arsenal of structures and externally commissioned projects to continuously monitor and evaluate its selection process, beyond the externally mandated regular evaluations.
Beyond the direct quantitative impact, the ERC is also widely acclaimed as an important agent of change of the European research system. A Task Force set up to look at the ERC governance model, concluded in 2011 that the ERC “has established itself as an indispensable component of the European Research Area with a high reputation for the quality and efficiency of its operations”.
ERC: looking forward
The initial success signs of the ERC has translated into a substantially increased budget proposed for the ERC in the next Horizon 2020 programme. But with the EU current budget discussion drama, this increase may be in jeopardy. All the more important for the ERC to mobilize support by making its case for delivering on its mission, particularly in the area where it holds its strongest relative advantage, namely to select and support ground breaking excellence.
In order to consolidate its early success, it remains crucial for the ERC that it can continue to rely on a large pool of excellent and ground breaking proposals. For the moment, there is no problem of supply of proposals. On the contrary, for the 6th Starting Grant competition, the applications have gone up by 50% compared to the previous round, challenging the current scale of the selection process and budget.
For its ability to select excellent, frontier pushing proposals, it is key to keep on finding top notch researchers to compose the various panels and act as external referees. They make up the quality of the selection process and hence the reputation and success of the ERC. It is well known in the science evaluation literature that peer review systems have the tendency to lead to risk aversion, having the tendency to favor well established, well known research avenues. The ERC should be able to leverage its scale, quality and reputation to overcome this incumbency trap. Its highly reputed reviewers get a clear mandate to evaluate the proposals on their high risk/high gain character.
Overall, all signs show that the ERC seems to have the right modus operandus to deliver on its mission and if it would not, its evaluation system will give early warning to adjust.
While it is more straightforward to find metrics to evaluate whether selection on excellence has been achieved, this is however much less clear with respect to frontier research. Path breaking research may not be that easy to identify ex ante and even ex post. Inherent to its high risk nature, path breaking research does not always and immediately result into high impact output. But it is particularly on the selection of ground-breaking high risk disruptive research that the ERC has its most distinctive value added relative to other funding instruments.
A priority of the Scientific Council of the ERC will be to develop a new set of key performance indicators which will allow to monitor not only how it delivers on excellent research, but also on path-breakers. This will not only help the ex post evaluation but can also improve the ex ante selection of such proposals if needed.
Let’s hope ERC’s Scientific Council efforts in 2013 can be dedicated to ensuring its mission of supporting frontier research and do not need to be spent on fighting pressure to cut budgets or demands for immediate and just retour returns from the ERC budget.
Reinhilde Veugelers is a Senior Fellow at Bruegel and sits on the ERC's Scientific Council.