05 Apr 2009   |   News

European Research Council set for growth, says president

ERC head Fotis Kafatos urges basic research for economic growth – and charts a course for expansion.

European Research Council president Fotis Kafatos.

After completing its start-up phase, Europe’s leading agency for fundamental research is now ready to ramp up the pace of its grants – and the economic crisis makes such investments more timely than ever, according to the agency’s head.

“It’s precisely at times of financial crisis that we need a counter-cyclical investment” in research and development, said Fotis C. Kafatos, the president of the European Research Council and chairman of its Scientific Council. “You must make sure that the complex of our educational and research institutions is not starved in a period of economic crisis. Saving rather than investing now is a dangerous short-termist attitude. It is now that we must invest with conviction in the knowledge triangle: education, research, innovation.”

The ERC began operations in 2007, as a new initiative to fund basic research through peer-reviewed competitions for grants, with excellence as the sole criterion for success. Since then, it has selected about 575 researchers across Europe to get a total of €850 million – out of more than 11,000 applicants. Now the annual spending pace is set to jump, to €775 million this year, €1.1 billion next year, €1.3 billion in 2011, €1.6 billion in 2012 and €1.7 billion in 2013. And if Kafatos has his way, the growth won’t stop there.

“By 2013 we are at €1.7 billion – and by that year we should have a second steep increase so that we would reach something comparable to the NIH budget during the following seven years,” he said. The US National Institutes of Health is due to spend $30.3 billion in the fiscal year beginning October 1. The US National Science Foundation, which funds research across a broad number of fields like the ERC, will spend $7 billion in the coming fiscal year. 

Whether the ERC actually gets a further budget rise from 2014, of course, will depend on its political paymasters at that time in the European Council, Commission and Parliament. On 24 February the EC announced the formation of a committee of leading experts in science policy, from both Europe and overseas, to start reviewing the work of the ERC to date.

Ready for growth

Kafatos, interviewed at his office at Imperial College London where he is also a professor, said the ERC is ready for a significant growth. He likened it to an airplane.

“We are now in flight,” he said. “In the first call (for grants in 2007) we were on the runway. We were testing our engines, as we were about to take off. We did take off in the second year and now we are quite confident that we can ramp up to the larger budget and operate on the appropriate scale. The directorate of the Commission, that was entrusted with implementing the strategic decisions of the ERC Scientific Council, has been transformed now into a 400-people executive agency that will be able to handle the calls when the numbers become significantly higher.”

The ERC was created to add a new dimension in European research funding – a multi-disciplinary research agency, similar to the US NSF, that arranges continent-wide competitions for grants, judged by independent panels of leading experts from across the world, rather than by administrators.

The ERC focus is on picking the best researchers with the best ideas often across the boundaries of existing disciplines rather than, as with some of the EU’s other programmes, trying to build broad geographical networks of researchers or building coalitions of industry and academia. On its first call for grants, in 2007, the ERC was flooded with more than 9,000 applicants. With its budget already fixed that year, the “cull” rate among applicants was ferocious: In the end, only 3 per cent of applicants succeeded – a lower percentage than the NSF, NIH or even such international funders as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For its second call, the ERC tightened the application criteria and pointed out more clearly that the applicants were expected to be at the leading edge of their fields. Supply got closer to demand.

Looking back, Kafatos cited that high failure rate at the start as something that “didn’t work so well”. But he added: “This was to be expected, that just about everyone would take a chance to apply when you launch something as ambitious as this, as funding of research is so tight in much of Europe. For example, it is well known that Italy does not fund research adequately, so it was not surprising that one third of the applicants to the first call were Italians. The community needs education. It needs to learn what it’s all about. And the numbers of applications are slowly drifting downwards to what we hoped, because our objective is not to fund everyone in Europe who wants to do research. We are an excellence initiative.”

A pattern emerges

He said a pleasant, if unexpected, development was a pattern that emerged: many national funding agencies in Europe gave grants to ERC runners-up: those who had met the quality criterion but could not be funded for lack of an adequate ERC budget. This was done by French, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, Swedish and Flemish research agencies.

Next steps, Kafatos said, include pitching for more researchers outside the EU to apply for ERC grants. This is encouraged so long as the applicant is proposing to do the research at an EU university or other European institution. First priority, he said, is involving US scientists – but Japan, China and India are also on the agenda. Attracting non-EU researchers with ERC grants is intended to help strengthen Europe’s science base – and reverse the brain drain that Europe has experienced for many decades.

Industrial researchers are also welcome, he said. “We are open to people based in industry applying for grants. No one has so far, probably because it is not widely enough known as yet (that industrial researchers can apply.) We intend to make it clear that we can give grants to innovative people in industry, provided the enterprise allows the principal investigators to follow their nose in research. Basic research in industry is a component of industrial research, that falls within the ERC’s remit; we would be very happy to support.”

A further funding boost, from 2014, is needed to consolidate the attractiveness of ERC grants and strengthen European research, Kafatos argues. “You need Europe to clearly succeed in this major undertaking. Any stalling would be misguided. In a moment of crisis you want to put resources as much as possible to those who will have a major impact. Excellence is at the core of the ERC.”

He added: “If you think excellence is costly, try mediocrity.”

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