‘We’ll manage’: ERC grapples with the aftermath of budget negotiations

06 May 2021 | News

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of Europe’s top science agency, discusses the challenges facing Europe’s top science agency in the aftermath of an EU budget that was less ambitious than hoped for

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, ERC President. Photo: Revista Pesquisa Fapesp

A week ago, the European Parliament adopted a new budget framework for EU funded research and the European Research Council. Now the ERC is celebrating the award of its 10,000th grantee. But the fundamental research funder's situation is anything but certain as it grapples with its new seven-year framework.

“Our ambition was to have a much higher success rate (for grant applicants) but for that we needed a bigger budget, which we only partially got,” ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon told Science|Business. He chided European leaders for not supporting the Horizon Europe programme budget last summer, especially during a pandemic, although the cuts were partly reversed after long negotiations with the European Parliament. This attitude contrasts somewhat with the US President Joe Biden’s ambitious science budgets.

“When we are talking about frontier research, you have to take ambitious views seriously and properly support them, which is what the ERC is doing,” Bourguignon said.

It’s no surprise that Bourguignon, a French mathematician who has led the agency for nearly seven of the past eight years, would still be urging more support for frontier research in Europe.  After a long fight between the Parliament and the EU Council, EU policymakers assigned a budget of €16 billion to the ERC for the next seven years. After accounting for inflation, that’s only a slight increase from its prior seven-year budget. To be sure, it will be supplemented by top-ups from several non-EU countries like the UK and Israel that will also contribute to the programme. But the exact amounts are still to be determined.

Boosting funding for basic research, he argues, is key to ensuring Europe’s ability to innovate and address future challenges. Investments in basic research enabled the rapid development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Breakthrough research in other areas will be key in tackling future challenges, such as climate change. Funders such as the ERC, which launched its first calls this year in February, give scientists the means to pursue their ideas – to propose research projects on their own, “bottom-up”, rather than applying for money from research programmes whose priorities are set by politicians, “top-down.”

Grant No. 10,000

In a show of its continued commitment May 6, after 14 years of service, the ERC named its 10,000th grantee, Inga Berre at the University of Bergen in Norway. Her research aims to boost the potential of geothermal energy in Europe’s low-carbon future.

In the coming seven years, the agency hopes to finance another 10,000 projects. “We’re going twice as fast,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her award ceremony address. “This kind of innovation will be even more necessary in the years ahead.”

Bourguignon, while expressing gratitude for such sentiments, says support from Brussels isn’t enough. EU funding represents around 10% of total government research funding in the EU, and the ERC cannot save frontier research in Europe on its own. The lion’s share of the job rests in the hands of the member states, on whom Bourguignon calls to prioritise support for fundamental research, taking a long-term vision.  

“A European initiative alone cannot have an impact,” he said in the award ceremony. “Scientists must have the freedom to develop their vision and the means to pursue their ideas.”

Another major research funder is the private sector, which the pandemic has put in a difficult financial position. Many companies may cut research spending to rebalance budgets, warns Bourguignon. This will in turn affect research and research careers in the EU.

In the end, investing in fundamental research means taking a long-term vision, and the ERC president continues calling on EU leaders to do so. As other countries scramble to support basic research around the world, the EU is risking being left behind. US President Joe Biden recently proposed a $50 billion top-up for the National Science Foundation, the US equivalent of the ERC. China is also moving fast in terms of funding and quality. Falling behind is dangerous. “That’s why we fought” for a bigger budget, Bourguignon said.

Getting the most out

The ERC’s goal is to support as many excellent frontier research projects as possible. But with a limited budget, supporting all worthy proposals and thus keeping success rates up is difficult. The average has been around 12%, but in the last ERC call for Advanced grants for experienced researchers, the success rate was merely 8% after an unprecedented spike in applications. A low success rate could discourage excellent scientists from applying because the competition is too tough. But Bourguignon says the fluctuations are manageable.

The big uncertainty is how many applications will be submitted each round. Usually, there is a spike in applications at the start of a programme. Unsurprisingly, this year, the ERC recorded a 24% increase in applications from early-career researchers and 5.6% increase in applications for Consolidator grants for mid-career researchers.

But even here, the applicants threw a few curveballs. Applications from the UK fell to 12% of the total applicant pool, from 20% previously - possibly owing to the uncertainties concerning the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe post-Brexit.

Another uncertainty is how big the agency’s staff will be. The Commission is generally planning a 15% productivity rise across all executive agencies over the next seven years. But, Bourguignon argues, the ERC is already highly efficient, having avoided major disruptions to funding flows during the pandemic.

Yet another uncertainty: non-EU countries – last year, 16 EU neighbours – that regularly contribute to Horizon so their researchers can also apply for grants. Some of that money gets passed to the ERC, but the agency doesn’t have a clear view yet of how much that will be. In 2019, this “associated country” top-up amounted to €120 million, which can, for example, support around 40 more Advanced grants, increasing success rates by multiple percentage points, Bourguignon said. Success rates, “instead of being catastrophic (low), would be mediocre. It makes a difference,” said Bourguignon.

In Horizon Europe, associated country contributions matter even more since the UK is now one. In Horizon 2020, according to Bourguignon, 20-22% of ERC grants regularly went to UK-based scientists. If the trend persists, that could mean a 20% top-up for the ERC regular budget coming from the UK.

“We don’t know exactly how much money we are going to get” from the associated countries. “Of course, it is going to be much more than in the past for the reason that among the associated countries now there is the UK. It’s not a small thing.”

In case the success rates become unmanageable, the ERC could introduce re-applications restrictions to deter scientists from submitting weak applications, he said. This is something the ERC did in 2014.

There is also potential for expanding the Seal of Excellence programme, which helps unsuccessful yet excellent applicants secure alternative funding from their own governments, sometimes paid for by dipping into a separate EU funding programme, the Structural Funds. But that, too, is uncertain as EU officials work out the details of how they will manage that money.

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