Research lobbies cheer European Research Council rollout of ‘inclusive’ evaluation rules

09 May 2023 | News

The ERC has clarified plans for a more inclusive process for assessing grant applications from 2024, with evaluators giving more weight to project proposals than the bare metrics of a scientist’s career. Researchers tell Science|Business they support the change

The European Research Council (ERC) is revamping its project evaluation process from 2024 in line with the EU-wide push for a less prescriptive approach to evaluating scientific impact, shifting away from the traditional listing of research posts held and papers published, to a four-page narrative CV.

ERC President Maria Leptin first talked to Science|Business about the new application format in December, after the Scientific Council voted through the changes. Last month, the ERC further clarified the plans.

The move has been welcomed by scientists, who in recent months have embraced moves to reform the way in which research impact is assessed, moving away from publication-focused metrics to a build a more rounded picture.

“It doesn’t matter how well you are doing, you need to adapt it to the kind of society we want, and we are clearly evolving towards more inclusivity and transdisciplinary research,” says Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe.

The changes acknowledge, “the human aspect of being a researcher,” said Luke Drury, vice-president of ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities. “This is an important development and is expected to contribute to improving equity, inclusion, and diversity in the research community.”

The changes will see the CV and track record merged into one document of up to four pages in which applicants will be expected to include standard biographical information, but also a list of up to ten research outputs demonstrating how they have advanced knowledge in their field. The emphasis will be on more recent achievements and examples of peer recognition, for example, winning a prize.

However, the scientific excellence of a proposed project will remain the sole deciding factor on who gets the prestigious grants.

“It’s a positive step from the ERC towards acknowledging more diverse outputs, as part of the research process, on top of just publications, and this recognition of diverse career paths,” said Sarika Wilson, head of policy at the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “I don’t think that this changes to a great extent who will be successful but in some cases where a researcher had a slightly unusual career path, they might be more successful than before.”

Research assessment reform

The European Commission started to press for research assessment reform in the beginning of last year, as part of the move to revive the European Research Area (ERA). In June, research ministers endorsed the process.

On the ground, various science organisations banded together under the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA), which came up with an action plan setting out the main lines across which the evolution of assessment systems should take place. More than 500 funding agencies, researchers, universities and organisations have signed the agreement, including the ERC.

Now, with the changes set to be introduced, other funders – including those outside the EU – are looking and are likely to draw lessons. “It’s a very good step forward and a very rapid step forward,” says Borrell-Damián. “I think it is a very visible good practice not only in Europe but beyond. The ERC is a model that is looked at by many, in terms of setting trends.”

There is more work to be done in changing how research and researchers are evaluated in Europe. “We look forward to working with the ERC and other stakeholder organisations to make further progress on these vital goals within CoARA, notably through its soon to be established working groups,” said Stephane Berghmans, director for research and innovation at the European University Association, one of the key organisations in the coalition.

The changes

Changes are coming but the ERC philosophy will remain the same, with scientific excellence as the sole criterion for evaluation. This means that the proposal’s ambition, feasibility and prospects of making a breakthrough will be up for assessment, as before.

But the applicant must be up to par with the proposal. Until now, to ensure this, the ERC work programmes included detailed profiles of principal investigators. The new four page CV and track record format will allow applicants to explain their career paths and breaks, allowing those with unorthodox paths to better present themselves.

Drury acknowledged this may translate to extra burden for applicants and peer reviewers as they get accustomed to the new system, but “such a reform of evaluation practices is however urgently needed and adequate resources should be made available to support this evolution.”

Borrell agrees the changes may take some time to get used to, but notes the point isn’t to penalise those who did well under the previous rules. “If a researcher does well in the current system, does good research, he or she should not perceive a difference,” she said. “It’s an adaptation.”

At the end of the day, among universities, trust in the ERC is high. “We have our full trust in the ERC’s evaluation procedures, so we don’t have any doubts about these changes they have introduced,” said Wilson.

Other changes coming to the ERC. From next year, Advanced grants awarded to the most experienced researchers will come in the form of a single lump sum rather than paid out based on the real cost of a project. It’s part of the wider roll out of lump sums in Horizon Europe, which the Commission hopes will help lift the paperwork-heavy burden of reporting costs off the shoulders of both the researchers and EU agencies administering the money. Here’s an explainer.

There’s also change coming to the evaluation process. For most calls, the evaluators will be able to admit no more than 44 proposals to the second step of the evaluation.

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