Follow the money, do the research
The ERC is a gold mine, and the gold standard, for scientific research funding
For an organisation to back one Nobel prize winner is impressive but being able to say you backed two is astounding. The European Research Council (ERC) can make just such a claim, having decided to award research funding to Serge Haroche, joint winner of the 2012 physics prize, and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the physics prize in 2010.
What makes its Nobel success even more impressive is the ERC was formed only five years ago. Since then, it has demonstrated a determination to fund only the very best research.
Winning an ERC grant is now viewed across Europe as an indication of the quality of the science and of the researcher. For this reason, universities and organisations here, such as Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council, are encouraging more applicants for ERC awards.
Prof David Lloyd, Trinity College Dublin’s director of strategic innovation, describes the ERC grants as “critically important . . . They validate our international excellence in research and that is an attractor not only for other excellent international researchers to come and work alongside peers in Ireland, but also for companies who want to work with the very best people,” he says.
They also represent a form of foreign direct investment, he argues. The funding is used for goods and services here and “ is every bit as important as any euro secured by the IDA in landing corporate investment”.
Council grants represent “the gold standard for scientists in Europe”, says ERC president Prof Helga Nowotny. “Particularly for young researchers, ERC funding offers a unique opportunity to gain international recognition,” she says.
“The ERC is not only another science-funding programme – it is the best source of funding in terms of prestige and grant value,” says Dr Graeme Horley, national contact point for the council at Science Foundation Ireland. “It is seen as the elite funding programme in Europe for fostering research.”
Applicant success rates tend to be in the 10-15 per cent range. “It is a very competitive call,” Horley says. This may put off potential applicants and Nowotny has already indicated that Ireland’s application rates run below the EU average, although there were signs of improvement, particularly in the starter grant area, she added.
The ERC had €7.5 billion to spend under the EU’s Framework Programme 7 research budget. It will invest a whopping €1.8 billion during 2013 alone, after which its budget could jump to as high as €13.2 billion under the new Horizon 2020 budget.
Given the potential for cuts in Ireland’s 2013 science budget, Irish scientists should increasingly look to the ERC as an alternative source of support for research. Unfortunately, application rates have been low. “Our job is to try and increase them. Awareness is a key aspect,” Dr Horley says.