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Policy

Milestone For European Science

Government: European Research Council marks fifth anniversary in Brussels

by Sarah Everts
March 5, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 10

ERC At A Glance

Headquarters: Brussels

Date established: Feb. 2, 2007

Budget 2007–13: $10 billion (€7.5 billion)

Budget year 2011: $1.6 billion

Budget year 2012: $2.1 billion

Estimated number of grants: 2,500

SOURCE: ERC

Four hundred policymakers, scientists, politicians, and journalists met in Brussels on Feb. 29 and March 1 to celebrate the fifth birthday of the European Research Council (ERC), a pan-European agency that funds research based on scientific merit.

“After only five years, the ERC can point to a remarkable list of achievements,” said European Union Commissioner for Research & Innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn at the celebration.

ERC grant holders have published more than 3,400 research papers acknowledging the agency’s funding, she said. “In the course of 2011, every week at least one ERC-funded project reported its findings in either Nature or Science.”

With its funding based on scientific merit only, ERC differs from other European Commission-created funding mechanisms, which allocate money for science based on additional criteria such as equitable distribution of funds across EU member states.

Developing ERC so that its grants are based solely on scientific merit was not a smooth process, noted ERC President Helga Nowotny. “There has always been an inherent tension between the demands of policymakers for practical innovation and the deeply rooted interests of scientists in curiosity-driven research.”

Maintaining merit-based funding is essential because “we cannot program scientific breakthroughs or order them as if from a menu,” Nowotny said.

Initially, ERC focused on supporting early-career researchers with five-year grants averaging $1.3 million, and established scientists with average five-year grants of $3.3 million. The agency is now expanding to fund proof-of-concept ideas and collaborative projects.

Any scientist can apply for an ERC grant if they are based in or moving to Europe. Most grantees come from EU nations, but some recipients originate from Brazil, Canada, India, and other nations. The 75 U.S.-born grantees outnumber other international recipients.

When German chemist Anja-Verena Mudring received an ERC grant in 2008, “I was really at the start of my career using ionic liquids to develop energy-efficient materials,” she tells C&EN. “The funding allowed me to follow an unconventional idea.”

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