The European Research Council has changed how it evaluates applicants. Here’s why

29 Feb 2024 | News

ERC president Maria Leptin outlines the thinking behind the recent move towards less prescriptive application forms for its basic research grants 

The European Research Council (ERC) has introduced changes to how it assesses researchers. Photo: European Union

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The European Research Council (ERC) introduced a more inclusive application form for applicants this year to give researchers on all career pathways a fair chance to demonstrate their excellence.

In a new paper, ERC president Maria Leptin outlined the ERC Scientific Council’s thinking behind the decision it took last year. After long debate, the Council said it shares, “the concern that current research assessment systems often use inappropriate and narrow methods to assess the quality, performance and impact of research and researchers.”

The European Commission kicked off Europe-wide discussions on reforming research impact assessment in 2022. The thinking is that the current methods of assessing researchers are too narrow and rigid. To keep up with the times, the focus on journal publication metrics should be dropped, in favour of achievements that give a more rounded picture.

EU research ministers endorsed the process. On the ground, various science organisations banded together under the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) and came up with an action plan setting out the main lines for updating assessment systems. More than 500 funding agencies, researchers, universities and organisations signed the agreement, including the ERC.

In line with CoARA’s recommendations, the ERC’s new rules shifted away from the traditional listing of research posts held and papers published, to a four-page narrative curriculum vitae. The ERC has also changed how it evaluates researchers, placing more emphasis on the project proposal rather than the applicant.

With a budget of €16 billion over seven years and having backed Nobel Prize winners, the ERC is Europe’s leading basic research funder. Other European funding bodies are likely to draw lessons.

What’s changed?

The application form for ERC funding looks a little different now. As of 2024, applicants have four pages to outline their career paths, research achievements, examples of peer recognition and any additional information, such as explanations for career breaks or particularly noteworthy contributions to the research community that didn’t find a place in the other sections.

And the Council got rid of the description of required ‘profiles’ of principal investigators, which used to be listed in the annual ERC work programme.

The evaluation method has also changed. In the past, both the CV and the project proposal were graded on a scale of one to five in the first step of the evaluation – with the project graded first, before evaluating the applicant. Now, only the project receives a score.

This helps limit unconscious bias. As Leptin puts it, under the previous system, “the application from an apparently ‘strong’ [principal investigator] with a weak proposal could end up with a similar combined score as one from a less accomplished PI with a brilliant proposal. This exposes the evaluation to a higher risk of unconscious bias.”

“We have now stopped this practice: only the project is scored on a numerical scale, and only this score can be used to rank the list of proposals before the panel discussion,” Leptin said.

What does it mean?

The ERC’s key principle hasn’t changed: all proposals are evaluated based on the criterion of excellence.

But the fund now recognises not everyone in academia will have the same career path. Major life events, or something as common as having children, can alter a researcher’s career trajectory. It also takes the emphasis off the prestige of the institutions a researcher has worked in.

The research community welcomed the change. Axel Cleeremans, professor of cognitive science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and president of the Association of ERC grantees, says the move is a good idea, as it prioritises the excellence of the proposal and not who the principal investigator is.

“From the perspective of grantees, it is obviously beneficial to have one’s proposal judged based on its scientific merits versus on indicators that may have little to do with one’s skill,” he told Science|Business.

Toma Susi, physicist at the University of Vienna and board member of the Association of ERC grantees, says the changes will especially benefit younger researchers, who are disadvantaged in  assessment systems that put emphasis on prestige.

This also benefits those that come from lesser-known institutions as well as applicants that have more diverse profiles, focused on less traditional contributions than journal articles.

“I think clearly researchers coming from underprivileged backgrounds and less prestigious institutions, who nonetheless have very good ideas and solid plans to pursue them have the biggest opportunity to benefit from the changes – and that's how it should be,” Susi said.

But he noted evaluators must be aware of what the new rules are trying to achieve. “It will be extremely important, however, that the evaluation panels are fully aligned with the revised guidelines, and I hope and trust the ERC will make significant efforts to disseminate them and provide guidance to its evaluators.”

Further changes

In her statement, Leptin said this isn’t the end of the discussions on how to revamp the ERC’s evaluation process.

During the debate, the Scientific Council discussed further changes, including partial randomisation of applications during the evaluation. This would mean the name and background of the applicant was only be revealed to the assessment panel after the project proposal itself was evaluated. “These discussions will continue in the future,” Leptin said.

Cleeremans says, “This would go even further in the direction of reducing bias than the current reform attempts to address.”

Susi says that the current changes strike an excellent balance right now but notes this isn’t the end of the revamp. “I expect that in a couple of years there will be a good time to look at further possibilities, when ongoing efforts to greatly improve the level of evidence on peer review and research assessment practices starts to bear fruit from CoARA working groups and other aligned efforts,” he told Science|Business.

ERC profile

The ERC gives out grants to excellent researchers embarking on promising basic research projects. These are prestigious and hugely competitive.

There are five types of grants:

  • Starting grants for researchers who defended their first PhD two to seven years ago (up to €1.5 million for five years);
  • Consolidator grants for those who defended their first PhDs seven to 12 years ago (up to €2 million for five years);
  • Advanced grants for established researchers (up to €2.5 million for five years);
  • Synergy grants for teams of two to four principal investigators (up to €10 million for six years);
  • Proof of concept grants for ERC grantees to explore the commercial and social innovation potential of their research (a lump sum of €150,000 for 18 months).

There is additional funding of up to €1 million available for each type of grant, except for proof of concept.

The grants are awarded to principal investigators – except in the case of synergy grants – who then work with their teams on the project. They can be from anywhere in the world but must carry out their work in an EU member state or a Horizon Europe associated country.

For 2024, three calls are yet to open: advanced grants (29 May – 29 August); synergy grants (12 July – 8 November); and the second cut off for proof of concept grants (17 September).

The 2025 calls for starting and consolidator grants are likely to open later this year, but exact dates are yet to be announced.

All this is detailed in the ERC 2024 work programme, which outlines the calls and their scope.

And there’s a change in advanced grants this year which are moving to lump sum funding.

This article is part of a preview series ahead of the launch of a newsletter tailored for those seeking funding and grants for research and innovation across Europe and beyond. Access in-depth analyses of grant programmes, and their policy background, deep dive into call design through expert interviews, and gain insights from Europe’s most prolific grant winners. Stay tuned for more updates and exclusive content.

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