Lithuania, the only EU country never to have won a grant from the European Research Council (ERC), has finally changed its luck.
On April 7th the EU’s frontier research agency announced that Saulius Klimašauskas, a biochemist at Vilnius University in Lithuania's capital city, had won €2.5 million for his research proposal on epigenetic change.
“We’re putting Lithuania back on the science map,” a jubilant Klimašauskas told Science|Business.
Klimašauskas succeeded on his first attempt in a super-competitive ERC funding round in which less than 10 per cent of applications were chosen.
“I wasn’t sure this was a bird you could catch,” said Klimašauskas, whose lab sits next to the one run by Lithuania’s other science star of the moment, Virginijus Siksnys, a biochemist who helped pave the way for the gene-editing Crispr-Cas9 discovery.
Vilnius University rector Artūras Žukauskas said he was “very proud” of the win.
He felt the recognition was overdue, with Lithuania’s biotech sector going through a boom period.
“Per population size we have the largest biotech production in the EU,” said Žukauskas. “And our university is the main provider of manpower for the sector.”
The politics of funding
The small share of ERC grants won by east European countries has become a growing political issue, pitting rich against poor countries. Northern European politicians, whose top-rated universities host most ERC grantees, argue that the ERC’s job is funding excellent science and its international peer reviewers shouldn’t take any geographical considerations into account.
Others, often from eastern or southern Europe, argue that the EU needs to spend money building the scientific capacities of poorer EU members - and while the ERC shouldn’t lower its standards, it and other EU programmes should take account of the problem in one way or another.
As a result, in Brussels there was almost an audible sigh of relief following the Lithuanian announcement. EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas said: “I'm very proud to see that now all the 28 EU countries host ERC grants.”
Klimašauskas’ research will investigate the roles that three enzymes responsible for DNA methylation play in human development.
“I think my win can be a breakthrough – people will believe it is possible to win one,” he added.
Žukauskas, the rector, shares the hope that more awards will follow. The university has a new life sciences centre, opened last year with EU regional funds, and is recruiting more staff to manage the application effort, he said.
The ERC money will allow Klimašauskas to hire a team of scientists – probably all Lithuanians, he said, as it is still a challenge for the country to attract foreign talent.
“Our salary levels freeze the status quo in terms of competitiveness in Europe,” he said. “I think there should be a gradual change towards a uniform EU salary. House and food might be cheaper here but we still have to pay the same high prices for chemistry supplies – such as reagents – as everyone else across Europe.”
These issues aside, Klimašauskas is clear about one of the main benefits of his win.
“I don’t have to write another grant application for at least five years,” he said.