The European Research Council (ERC) was set up in 2007 under the EU's 7th Framework Programme for Research (FP7). Its mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence. The ERC aims to stimulate research excellence by supporting and encouraging the very best, truly creative scientists, scholars and engineers to be adventurous and take risks in their research. In their ERC grants, researchers are encouraged to go beyond established frontiers of knowledge and the boundaries of disciplines.
The ERC is part of the Excellent Science pillar within Horizon 2020. The total budget allocated to the ERC for the period 2014-20 is €13.1bn, which means, in real terms (i.e. without considering inflation), an increase of 60% compared to FP7. The ERC represents 17% of the overall Horizon 2020 budget (€79bn). The ERC's total annual budget for 2018 is estimated at over €1.8bn.
From a societal perspective, the ERC could provide a mechanism for investing rapidly in research targeted at new and emerging issues confronting society. On the economic side, the ERC will help nurture science-based industry and create a greater impetus for the establishment of research-based spin-offs.
Ultimately, the ERC aims to make the European research base more prepared to respond to the needs of a knowledge-based society and provide Europe with the capabilities in frontier research necessary to meet global challenges.
ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working, or moving to work, in Europe. The aim here is to recognise the best ideas, and confer status and visibility on the best brains in Europe, while also attracting talent from abroad.
However, the ERC aims to do more than simple fund research. In the long term, it looks to substantially strengthen and shape the European research system. This is done through high quality peer review, the establishment of international benchmarks of success, and the provision of up-to-date information on who is succeeding and why. The hope is that these processes will help universities and other research institutions gauge their performance and encourage them to develop better strategies to establish themselves as more effective global players.
ERC funding follows the following principles:
- One researcher; one host institution; one project; one selection criterion: scientific excellence;
- No consortia, no networks, no co-financing;
- Applications can be made in any field of research (apart from nuclear energy research), including social sciences and humanities;
- Independent researchers from anywhere in the world, of any age and career stage can apply;
- Host institutions must provide conditions for the researcher to direct the research and manage its funding;
- Research must be carried out in one of the 28 EU member states or associated countries.
The three main funding schemes are Starting, Consolidator and Advanced Grants. These fund projects led by a Principal Investigator (PI) and, if desired, their team. Excellence is the sole criterion for funding, and the peer review criteria are the excellence of the PI and the excellence of the research project.
Synergy Grants are aimed at groups of two to four PIs from different fields who wish to tackle an exceptionally challenging problem. These were revamped for 2018, having been piloted in 2012 and 2013 but subsequently shelved due to low success rates. In the case of Synergy Grants, the sole criterion of scientific excellence takes on the additional meaning of outstanding intrinsic synergetic effect.
Proof of Concept (PoC) funding is an additional scheme which is for existing ERC grant holders only.
ERC Starting Grants
For young, early-career top researchers - up to €2m for a period of 5 years. Starting Grants are designed to support PIs at the stage at which they are starting their own independent research team or programme. The scheme will support independent and excellent new individual research teams. To be eligible, the PI must be 2-7 years from their PhD, which is extendable up to 11.5 years in certain strict cases.
ERC Consolidator Grants
For already independent excellent researchers - up to €2.75m for a period of 5 years. Consolidator Grants are designed to support PIs at the stage at which they are consolidating their own independent research team or programme. The scheme will strengthen independent and excellent new individual research teams that have been recently created. To be eligible, the PI must be over 7 and up to 12 years from their PhD, which is extendable up to 16.5 years in certain strict cases.
ERC Advanced Grants
For senior research leaders with significant research achievements in the last 10 years - up to €3.5m for a period of 5 years. Advanced Grants are intended to promote substantial advances in the frontiers of knowledge, and to encourage new productive lines of enquiry and new methods and techniques, including unconventional approaches and investigations at the interface between established disciplines. Applicants must have a recognised track record of research achievements.
ERC Synergy Grants
For 2-4 PIs and their teams to come together and apply complementary skills, knowledge, and resources in new ways in order to jointly address ambitious research questions in any field they choose - up €10m for a maximum period of 6 years. Independent researchers of any age and career stage can apply. Applications must demonstrate that the proposed research project cannot be carried out by a single PI working alone.
ERC Proof of Concept Grants
For ERC grant holders who want to check the market and/or innovation potential of research results from ERC projects - up to €150k for a period of 12 months. ERC PoC Grants are only for existing ERC grant holders (or those whose ERC grants have recently finished). PoC grants may be used for conducting further work (i.e. activities which were not scheduled to be funded by the original ERC frontier research grant) to verify the innovation potential of an idea arising from an ERC-funded project. Innovations can aim at financial profit or benefit society by feeding into ventures aimed at addressing social and environmental goals (which may also be in the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors).