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Learn about the ERC Grant Competitions 2020 in the ERC webinar


Good afternoon everybody and welcome to this webinar on the European Research Council’s Work Programme for 2020 and our various grant schemes. I’m joined here by two of my colleagues from our Scientific Department. Angela Liberatore, who is the Head of our Unit responsible for Social sciences and Humanities, and Alex Martin Hobdey who is the Head of Unit responsible for call coordination and following up with our projects. We’re looking forward very much to receiving your questions. This is not going to be a series of very long presentations. You can find the details of the 2020 Work Programme on our website, and I think we shared a link on our various social media channels. So we are not going to give you an exhaustive presentation of all of the details, but this is basically an opportunity for you to ask questions. If you’re thinking of applying for ERC funding and you’re not sure about how the process works or what’s in store then this is your opportunity to ask those questions. So, you can ask questions on YouTube either by using the chat or the comment function. You can ask questions on Twitter using the hashtag #ERC2020WP for Work Programme, and also on Facebook. So, before we launch into the Q&A session, I’d just like to give the opportunity to our two colleagues to share some information with you, not a full presentation as I said, but just to give you a flavour of what we have on offer. So let’s start with you, Angela. Could you just perhaps highlight some of the main features and the novelties in our 2020 Work Programme that was approved by our Scientific Council? Sure, Tony, and good afternoon to everyone listening to us. But first of all, what is the Work Programme? It’s a very simple document established by the Scientific Council to allow the researchers to apply for generous grants, going from 1.5 million for Starting Grants to 2.5 million for Advanced Grants, and even more: 10 million for groups of scholars joining in the Synergy Grant to pursue frontier research. So, the question is: what is frontier research? Well, frontier research is the research that pushes the frontiers of knowledge in any field of research and scholarship: in Life Sciences, in Physical sciences and Engineering, and in Social sciences and Humanities. And this is done through any type of research – theoretical, empirical, you name it – and it’s based on the promise of a bottom-up approach. It is for the researchers to choose the topics, the subjects, the research questions of course, and the methodologies and approaches they want to pursue. Who can apply? That’s also very simple. Any researcher in any part of the world. We are not nationalistic, any nationality is okay, provided the researchers will link and have the possibility to spend at least 50 percent of their time in a host institution in either a country of the European Union or the many countries associated to the Framework Research Programme. The grant is also following actually the, if you like, research career of researchers. So, researchers who are young can apply after two years of their PhD, as well as those who are more in the consolidation of their career; seven to twelve years after PhD, and those who are more advanced with at least a ten years’ track record. By the way, “advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean senior in age. We have Advanced Grantees who are still pretty young but who started apparently very early to do ground-breaking research. 61 percent of the old budget of the ERC is dedicated to Starting Grantees and Consolidator Grantees; the idea being: we need to have the basis; we need to have the young people not leaving research out of lack of options or grants. And this is why the Scientific Council decided that 61 percent of the budget should go to them. Evaluation: very important. Evaluation is based on only one criterion, very simple. It’s the criterion of excellence. The excellence of the applicants, the principal investigators, their track record, their achievements, their independence, creative thinking, and so on, and the excellence of the proposal they submit in terms of advancing the state of the art doing research which is really pushing the frontier. It’s done by, the evaluation is done by independent experts appointed, selected by the Scientific Council and working in the configuration of 25 panels, evaluation panels, in the fields of Physical sciences and Engineering, Life Sciences, and Social sciences and Humanities. Now, excellence, I would like to add, doesn’t mean, excellence only doesn’t mean necessarily ivory tower. The premise and the assumption is that it’s only by advancing the frontier of knowledge and having a serious scientific impact that it can also contribute to other social and economic impact and this is what ERC stands for. Thanks very much, Angela, for that introduction. So let me now turn to Alex. We’re launching this week the first calls for Starting Grants and Synergy Grants, and then those will be followed with calls later in the year under the other grant schemes. But could you tell us just perhaps a little bit about the Starting Grants and the Synergy Grants that are launching this week?
Okay, yes, that’s right. This week is the launch of the first two calls that we’re opening for what we call our Work Programme 2020, that’s the funding or the budget of 2020. And so the two calls that are opening now, one is the Starting Grant, this is of the sort of schemes that we have for the youngest or the least people who are just finishing their postdoctoral training and are just starting to set up a group of their own. We call these Starting Grants. And this call is opening this week. And the other call that’s opening this week is our Synergy Grant. Synergy Grants are our biggest grants up to 10 million euros, as Angela said, and can have up to four principal investigators working together. So I can say a few words about each. The Starting Grant, as I said, is aimed at people who are just starting to set up the first independent group. It’s saying that people who have say two, three, four, five, six years of postdoctoral experience and want to take that step of having their own lab, having their own, execute their own ideas and become independent. It’s a path to independence, scientific independence. And these are quite large grants for scientists at this early stage of their careers. They are up to 1.5 million, but you can also ask for an additional million for several reasons. One is, for example, if you’re moving to the EU or an associated country. Another reason you can give for the additional amount is large equipment, access to large facilities or just exceptional experimental costs like large amounts of consumables, large equipment, etc. So, in the end, a Starting Grantee can get up to nearly 2.5 million euros of money over a period of five years. So this is really a large grant and this really gives somebody a real boost to their career. So that’s a little bit on the Starting Grant. The Synergy Grant tries to bring together principal investigators of any point in seniority, in academic seniority. So, people of Starting Grant profile, Consolidator Grant profile or Advanced Grant who want to get together and prepare a really high-impact project which is really exceptional and can only be done by this unique combination of these three or four scientists. In fact, it can be two, three or four scientists – minimum two, maximum four, and we call them Synergy because what we’re looking for is a uniqueness; something that can only be done by this combination of scientists. Not just a collaboration, not just what they call a consortium, but something that’s really unique, where it takes the know-how of one, the ideas of another, bring it together and something bigger comes out of that. And these are our Synergy Grants. They are our biggest grants and really the sort of research we fund there clearly has an impact on the world scale. So these are the two calls which are opening this week. Thanks very much, Alex. I think you kind of anticipated a couple of questions that have come in already, one from Sergio on YouTube and one from Ali, also on YouTube. Both of them are considering applying for Starting Grants but they have a question around, you know, how established they have to be. So Sergio asks: a lot of people say that you can only get an ERC with an established group. Is that true? Because he’s just begun to form a group. And Ali asks: is it necessary to show that I have my own group or just showing that I’m independent, and how do I show that I’m independent?
Yes, those are two good questions and clearly related. No, you don’t have to have your own group and you don’t have to be independent. This is what we call route to independence. You need to be able to show that you are starting to have your own ideas, you’re starting to publish things separately, for example, from your PhD adviser. So this is a route towards independence. We don’t expect you to be independent at this point in time but the panel members will be looking for evidence that your ideas and your research is not simply based on the senior professors that you’re working with. So when you will move onto your own project, it’s probably good that it is slightly different or different then exactly what you’re working on in the lab that you’re working at that point in time. So no, you don’t have to be established and you don’t have to have a group at that point in time.
Okay, thanks. And then perhaps another question for you Alex and I’ll pass over to Angela with a slightly more philosophical or metaphysical question. So Maria asks on YouTube: what is the success rate with these grants, and how hard is it, what is the intensity of work required to prepare a proposal in your view?
Okay, so the first question is the success rate. So we have success rates right now of about twelve, thirteen percent. In fact, the Scientific Council tries to keep these success rates similar between the various schemes and in the last years have been about twelve, thirteen, sometimes a little lower, but that’s more or less our success rate. So yes, they are very competitive. The other question was …?
How hard is it? How much work does it take?
Well, how hard is it to prepare the grant. We’ve heard – we go around speaking to a lot of PIs many times. Some you hear have invested months of work and preparing it. Others have told me they prepared it over the weekend. I think the person who has told me they prepared it over the weekend is actually preparing something that in their minds they’ve thought about for a long time. And that’s in fact what she said. She said this is what her dream project. It’s something she always wanted to do. And so what we’re looking for, the panel members are looking for, is something really inspirational, something new. So it’s not a question of lots of text. It’s a question of a new idea. I don’t want to recommend to anybody to prepare it over the weekend but I do feel it needs to be well prepared but I don’t think there’s any standard answer to that, okay? But when you do prepare it, present the proposal, it needs to be clear that it’s been thought through, that is taken care of, there are no spelling mistakes. And something that is advised often is to give it to some colleagues around you, have them read it, let them find weaknesses. So I would recommend definitely preparing it. But I don’t think there’s a standard answer I wanted to give to that.
Okay, thanks, Alex. So having a good idea rather than lots of text. But that perhaps links a little bit with the question that I’ll put to you, Angela, that came in from Natalie on YouTube. Because she asks: how would you describe the difference between a very good project that does not manage to get ERC funding versus the splendid projects that get it? So I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier on about excellence but perhaps can you say a little bit more about how we judge excellence in the evaluation process? Absolutely! Well, actually, Natalie, I think Alex started the answer without knowing that there was the question when he said it’s something that has to be inspirational, something which is, you know, the great idea or dream even that people want really to pursue. Of course it takes, this means for example, that our panel members will look for ideas that are not just, let’s say, an incremental progress with regard to the work already pursued by the applicant herself or by, you know, or with regard to the established state of the art, but something really that pushes again the frontier beyond that. Of course, you know, , incremental research can be good but then it has less chances to be one of those projects selected by ERC. And the same goes with regards to the way of implementing it. The experts who are, of course, people in the field, who can therefore see whether a certain methodology is really sound, whether the meaning of methodology is done in a smart and feasible way, whether the theoretical part and, let’s say, the empirical art can be connected together in a way that pushes the frontier. So all these elements are severely while constructively looked at by the panel members, and they are the ones that make a difference between a proposal for example assessed as “B” – incremental progress but not breakthrough – and frontier research kind of proposal.
Okay. We’ve got quite a number of questions coming in but perhaps could you just add something to that, Angela, because there’s a question from Benoit who asks about how important it is with Starting Grants in particular, but I guess it’s more generally relevant as well, to balance high risk and less risky areas of research. Because we talk about high-risk high-gain. But how would you say people should strike the right balance? Well, Benoit, you’re asking one of the questions that very often panel members ask themselves when they start the evaluation procedure to be sure that they evaluate all the proposals fairly and with the same understanding. And I must say that there are also different research conditions in different disciplines, in different cultural environments, where not everybody understands high-risk high-gain in the same way. I give you an example: some people sometimes say: but, you know, it’s much better if it is high-gain and low-risk because, you know, with low-risk you have a, you know, better economic optimisation of the grant. But actually the idea for ERC is of course that the risks that are taken by research are risks which are somehow related to the possibility of having a high gain. But, of course, also that scientists, researchers applying know-how, know first of all what the risks are and might have a plan B or might have a way of saying: “Well, you know, if this part of the project fails, we still gain knowledge, we still gain understanding”. And this is why the ERC Council doesn’t want to, if you like, punish high risk because it’s only by daring to propose things that include a risk, including the risk of failure, something that you want to find, you know. You’re an archaeologist having a theory about a certain civilisation having done certain things and you have to, you know, take the risk that maybe this theory is not proven correct when you go in the excavation. And the same in any field of scholarship and research. So the idea is high risk which doesn’t mean just being completely fool or a crazy about taking risks that do not really are understood and tackled, but in a way that really helps pushing the frontier of science. And this is a little bit the balance that they try to reach.
Okay, thanks. I’d like to go back to one of the first questions we received which is a more technical one but now we can get into the nitty-gritty, I think. So Alex, Emilia asks: does the explanation of resources account for the 15 page limit of Part B2 of the application and, if yes, should we leave blank the space corresponding to such explanation included in Part A? So, can you illuminate us on how to…
So the simple answer to the question is yes, it does count. That’s the first point. So what we have now we’ve moved what used to be in Part B2, the resource section, and of course Part B2 when you start writing it’s basically a word file. So the section on resources now should be written in Part A, which is a structured part, and it’ll be a text box where you write it in. That text box expands as you keep writing and has a maximum capacity of about 8,000 characters. We take 8,000 characters to be about two pages. So when you calculate your page limit if you have, say, 4,000 characters in that box, you should take it to be more or less equivalent to one page. That gives you 14 pages left for your Part B2. If you write the full 8,000 characters count that as 2 pages and that leaves you 13 pages for Part B2. So there’s nothing to be left blank. The box actually expands and contracts depending on how much you insert in it and I think that sort of summarises the situation.
Thanks, I think that’s clear. Now I’ll try to group together. There are a number of questions about different elements that people can include in their proposal and how important those are in the evaluation, how much they’re taken into account. So, the first example is from Sam who says: How is it important is it for the PI to show that they’re leading a team of PDRs and possibly PhDs? Then, secondly, Azhar asks about how important is it to have a given h-index, and then Lorna says for the Starting Grants are the following important: to have an industry partner, PPI, or social media strategy. So I hope it’s possible to cover those various things together just in the interest of time. So leading a team of PDRs or PhDs, h-index, industry partner, PPI, social media strategy: how important are these different …? I think it’s very hard to give a uniform answer for all the panels. I mean, if you’re a historian, you’re not going to be working with big groups of postdocs, etc. If you’re working in a lab, you may have them so or if you’re a mathematician again the groups are much smaller. So there’s no simple uniform answer to all that. I think you just need to find yourself in a natural situation in this transition from being a postdoc to trying to establish your own group. So there’s no fixed requirement of any of these things. For example, in some institutions, you may be doing very advanced research and there isn’t a possibility of having students. So this will be taken into account depending on the institution. So the panel members are always briefed to take into account the situation, the institutional situation of the researcher. But also one of the reasons we have 25 different panels is that they will be adapting their judgment to the realities in each of these different fields. So really there aren’t hard and fast rules for any of these things. Each panel will be looking at the career stage and how well each of these applicants are doing. As Angela said, the excellence of the researcher and the promise.
Yeah, maybe I can I can note the fact that for example for the h-index. First of all, this is definitely not a requirement in our evaluation procedure. We do not ask applicants to give us their h-index and we do not ask the panel members to assess it in that way. Of course, as Alex was saying, this is very different in different communities. In, you know, some aspects of life sciences or physics or economics or cognitive sciences people will tend to provide their h-index and this will be seen and considered by the panel members as part of the broader track record, while this will not be the case in some other parts of our disciplines. So it really depends on the community but, you know, it’s not definitely a formal requirement. And the point about do we need to have industry partners and social media and so on. Well, no. I mean it’s not a requirement. Again, ERC is and continues to be bottom-up so what gets into the proposal and in the team is what the principal investigator or investigators in the case of Synergy Grants consider what is necessary, useful, nice, great to have in order to pursue the, you know, frontier research that their proposal is intended to be. Maybe a little clarification on the point on the institutional context that Alex was mentioning which I think is very important also in the context of the discussion of, you know, the diversity in Europe and different, you know, rates of applications and success rates coming from different countries and so on. The panel members are conscious of the diversity of let’s call them “starting conditions and environments”, and they are kindly requested to take that into account. And this includes what Alex was saying. Having said that, the host institution in itself is not an evaluation criterion. And the idea is, in fact, this used to be the case and the Scientific Council decided to drop the host institution as an evaluation criterion exactly to give, you know, the starting condition, the merit they deserve without having a bias in the evaluation that would go through the reputation of the host institution rather than seeing what the researcher really wanted to do, and whether the way of doing it was explained in the best possible way. And maybe a point which is maybe not yet a question but will become is that the host institutions are kindly warned by ERC about providing good conditions for the researchers because otherwise the principal investigator can exercise portability of grants meaning they can say: look, I get better conditions for my team, for my equipment, for whatever in another place. And in that case they can ask ERC to take the grant and move to the other host institution because this always requires that everybody agrees to the move. But just to say that this context is very important and at the same time the evaluation criteria is the excellence of the PI and the proposal on it.
Yeah, okay, I’m keeping an eye on the clock as well and we’ve got a little over five minutes left so let’s try to take three more questions. We’ve got a couple on Synergy Grants. Marco asked and, in fact, you can just confirm, Alex, that it is possible to incorporate a PI from the United States in a proposal for a Synergy Grant.
Yes, in the current call and the next year’s call, the one that is opening, there is a possibility of having up to one PI from outside the EU or an associated country, so United States or any other country in the world. And they can be funded from the money of the grant.
Okay. And slightly related somewhere Lee asks also on YouTube in a Synergy Grant’s application would it be seen as a strong point to have support of other US-based collaborations and networks.
Again, these are hard to count with, you know, rules which are hard and fast but anything that adds credibility to what you’re doing is always going to help. So if you have other collaborations and they make sense it will help; if they seem spurious and artificial it won’t. So things that make sense are always going to help you.
And then perhaps linking another couple of questions. Azhar, who asked about the h-index, he also asked: Is it possible to make a proposal in an area which is slightly or very different from the area where he has a track record. And César asks: is it possible to apply for a Starting Grant to create a team in a university where there is no professor close to the domain or where the PI is making the proposal? So either an area whether the applicant himself or herself is not really in their field or whether there isn’t a faculty in their host institution working particularly in that area. What do you think, Angela? Well, Azhar, yes, one can definitely in, you know, in the pursuit of, you know, pushing the frontiers of knowledge also push her own or his own frontiers of knowledge. Of course this comes with the burden of proof. It is then for the applicant to convince the panel members that they are moving towards another field that they want to pursue and they actually have an idea which is very good and innovative in that particular field. Not for example by reinventing the wheel in another field simply because they do not have enough knowledge of that particular field. And the same applies also to the way of pursuing this endeavour. If you are somebody who comes from a different field and starts having the curiosity and interest in working in another field and this can actually give new and bright ideas, it’s also always very wise for example to avoid repeating the state of the art rather than pushing it to have in the team some people who are from that field and who can So this is perfectly possible. Of course, it comes with the capacity of the applicant to say: well, I want to go on my own, I know what I’m doing, rather than just launching myself with a bright idea without a sufficient basis. Now for the second question, and Alex might want to add to this, again, the burden of proof is with the applicant. If you’re in a host institution where nobody has that particular background, you will be competing with people who can show that they have themselves the track record or are working with colleagues. And these are the other host institution who actually know that field and know what they are doing, and therefore can also push it better. So, definitely you don’t need to have, you know, a very established group, especially in Starting Grants, as Alex was saying. But to be completely alone in the field in a certain institution just means that, you know, then one has to demonstrate the capacity to link with other people in the field to again not do incremental research or reinvent the wheel. But maybe Alex…
Yeah, no, I think that the simple answer I would say is no, you don’t have to have an established professor in the field but you have to have the credibility as Angela says. But, for example, when people exercise their portability we seldom put any objection to where you move your grant to. So you can easily move a Starting Grant or a Consolidator Grant to a university where there isn’t an established professor in that field. So it wouldn’t make any sense for us to have that requirement. So I’d say there the simple answer is: no, you don’t need to have an established professor in that field but you do need to be credible in your proposal.
Okay, we’re almost out of time but let’s just take a couple of questions related to the eligibility windows for the different grant schemes which is something that we’re often asked about. So it’s from 2 to 7 years after PhD for Starting Grants and from 7 to 12 years for Consolidator Grants. So this gives rise to a number of questions we’re often asked for example what about maternity or paternity leave. We’re sometimes asked whether people should strategically wait until they’re later in the eligibility window or earlier. And then there’s a specific question from Tatiana on YouTube who asks would she be competitive for a consolidated grant if she’s 8 years past PhD but is only just starting her research group. So about the eligibility windows, what kind of advice would you give?
When we take the competitiveness or success rate through the window, we actually look at this quite carefully. We have statistics on this and we do find that people wait towards the end of the windows. Starting Grantees wait towards the end of the 7 (2 to 7) and Consolidators wait towards the end of that window. But, in fact, we see now very little difference in success rate whether you apply at the beginning or you apply at the end. So we can’t say, from what we see, that you are more successful when you apply at the end. Some people do wait, maybe there’s a natural tendency, but the panels are not just simply counting numbers of articles or papers. They are told to take into context how far along in the window people are and this is what we see. So should you wait to the end of the window? I would say: no, you should apply as soon as you feel confident, and then you will start getting feedback on your application. And like that you may be able to improve it. I said that that would be the last question but is it there’s an interesting question coming from Sunwoo which is on something that I think a lot of people are interested in, which is the panels, the various panels we have, that examine the proposals. And some will ask if there is no exact panel that my research seems to fit into what would be the best strategy to adopt?
Can you, Angela? Well, I think that the strategy which the ERC recommends is that you try to choose the panel that looking at the panel in the Work Programme you have the title and the subtitle of the panel. And then in the guidance for applicants you have the so-called descriptors, so the keywords that specify better what goes in one or the other panel. Those are not a comprehensive list; it’s basically a list to give an idea. So, the idea is: choose the panel which seems to be the closest to your core interest, and then you can indicate a secondary panel if there is another one that you think is the second best in terms of what you think would be the best conjunction. Having said that though, the ERC is absolutely conscious that many ideas might be at the crossroad of different disciplines, including across different domains, and therefore across the different 25 panels. And in the evaluation procedure we have a way of handling that, which is the fact that, independently from the principal investigator indicating only the primary panel or also indicating a secondary panel, the panel chairs look at it with the cooperation of our scientific officers and think about so-called “cross panel reviews”, meaning the proposal is evaluated in one panel but there will be a panel member, or even more than one, that will look at the proposal from another panel. And we have several of those cases of cross panel reviews, not only between different panels in the same domain but also across the Physical science, Engineering, Life Sciences and Social sciences and Humanities domains. So don’t be afraid, there is always a place for daring ideas that might be across the panels. We don’t want anyone to believe I’m falling in between the chairs. And this is why we have the provision of the cross panel reviews. But try to choose what you think is best and then the panel chairs will deal with the most appropriate
evaluation. Yes. So that’s all we have time for this afternoon, folks. I would like to thank very much my two
colleagues who’ve taken time this afternoon to share their insights and
practical tips about applying for the ERC grants. So thanks again to Angela and to Alex. Thanks again to all of you for following. I think we there were several hundred people following this webinar so I hope you found it interesting and useful. Please do check in to our website where there’s lots of more detailed information about the Work Programme and the different grant schemes. Do sign up for our email alerts and follow us on social media including following our YouTube channel. We will be sharing a lot more information about upcoming opportunities via those various channels. And also don’t forget about our National Contact Points that we have because very often they’re the best first port of call if you have questions about the ERC and what’s possible, so another great source of advice. So thanks again for following and if you’re preparing an application for one of the upcoming calls: good luck. Buona fortuna. Good luck. Buena suerte.

Reynold King

4 Replies to “Learn about the ERC Grant Competitions 2020 in the ERC webinar”

  1. Hi, thanks for the seminar. I have a question about the eligibility. In case if you have a paper with shared corresponding author with PhD supervisor, is it considered eligible? (in case if you still don't have papers without the PhD supervisor)

  2. Thanks to all who tuned in for this webinar. We hope it was useful. There were a few the questions in the chat that we couldn't answer live, we'll try to reply as soon as possible in writing here.

  3. This grant is only for European Countries and USA, or any other country from the rest of America can participate?

  4. Hi, I have a question about eligibility: my PhD diploma is from January 13, 2009. I was in maternal and child care leave between 23 September 2010 and 15 December 2012, and between 7 May 2013 and 16 June 2014. Do I qualify for PI for Consolidator Grant or other? Thank you!

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