Half a billion euros dished out to well-established scientists

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the final cash handouts from its first ever ’Advanced Grants’ competition, worth a total of €542 million, and launched the competition’s second phase of funding. 

The ERC was officially launched in February 2007, with a budget of €7.5 billion to dish out to blue-skies science by 2013 under the EU’s seventh framework research programme (FP7). Earlier this year, it concluded its first ’Starting Independent Researcher Grant’ competition for younger researchers, but the Advanced Grant competition is for experienced scientists, with the 275 recipients averaging 51 years old. Researchers from 18 European Union nations and eight non-EU nations, working at institutions in 23 nations, will receive up to €3.5 million each over five years. Around one in ten applications were funded.

ERC grant recipient Gunnar von Heijne, of Stockholm University’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics is highly pleased with the new programme, as might be expected of a scientist about to receive a cash injection of €2 million over the next five years. 

’It is great to get the money to do new things, to expand the group,’ says von Heijne, whose group studies membrane protein assembly and structure. He plans to add 4 post-docs or doctoral students to his staff, currently at about 10, and install new lab equipment.  

While other funding schemes through EU Framework Programmes have targeted research networks working across national borders, the ERC grants are awarded to one researcher in one nation. 

’The whole process is much more straightforward and well-defined,’ says von Heijne. ’Now you don’t have to coordinate with 25 different other labs to get EU funding,’ he adds, hastening to point out that Framework Programmes funding transnational research collaborations have been highly beneficial too.

Well over two-thirds of the recipients work in physical sciences and engineering, or the life sciences - the others in social sciences and humanities, or interdisciplinary research crossing these domains. Among the physical and life sciences subgroups, chemistry is well represented.

The UK was the big winner by far, home to 21 per cent of the host institutions, followed by France with about 13 per cent, Switzerland at 10 per cent and Germany at just under 10 per cent. While only 17 per cent of the recipients are UK citizens, German citizens account for 13 per cent. Only 12 per cent of the recipients are women.

Gianpietro van de Goor, an ERC press officer, says about a third of the recipients will have received first grant disbursements by Christmas and the remainder early next year. 

In addition to the 275 recipients named, about 340 other submissions met ERC excellence criteria, but could not be funded because of lack of funds. More than a dozen researchers not chosen were put on a reserve list and will be funded in this round should more money become available, he said.

New calls for the next funding round were issued on 19 November, for €490 million. Deadlines for application are set variously between March and May 2009. 

Ned Stafford