European Research Council’s (ERC) individual grants - what, why and how

European Research Council’s (ERC) individual grants are among the best and most prestigious grants available for researchers in the world. ERC is a bottom-up research grant available for talented researchers from any field and anywhere around the world.
European Research Council’s (ERC) individual grants are among the best and most prestigious grants available for researchers in the world. ERC is a bottom-up research grant available for talented researchers from any field and anywhere around the world. It also has surprisingly good award percentages, at least when compared to the domestic funding like the Academy of Finland. For example, in the last evaluated ERC 2020 calls the success rate of Starting and Consolidator grants was around 13%. The budget is allocated to the evaluation panels proportionally to demand, so all scientific domains are in an equal position.
The way ERC funds research is very different to many other funders. ERC is solely interested in scientific excellence and societal impact comes as “nice to have” but is not evaluated as such. ERC supports high-risk/high-gain approach to research which means they do not fund any projects that are perceived as incremental research. The approach means that researchers are encouraged to “think big” and propose ground-breaking research that will enable huge leaps in the field or research, and preferable in the surrounding fields as well. Provided that the scope is ambitious enough, and the operational risks (budget, PI’s mastery of the methods etc.) are well accounted for, ERC is fine with the possibility that the project can fail, at least to some extent.
The evaluation of the excellence happens at two levels: in addition to the research idea, the applicant is also evaluated. With the latter, your publishing record, international experience and scientific leadership (independence as a researcher, supervision experience, membership in scientific associations, invited key-notes etc.) are evaluated. ERC applicants have often questions whether their CV is “impressive” enough. Although definite “metrics” are difficult to define, as minimum criteria is very basic with one or several important publications without the PhD supervisor, it is important to “control the narrative” in the CV and track record and emphasize the strong areas by explaining the listed achievements or providing a biosketch. The ERC application is not the time to be humble - the applicant needs to state with great certainty, why he/she is the only person able to execute the project as well as why this idea, why now, and why ERC should be the funding agent. It is important to keep in mind that ERC projects are not collaborative, which might seem counterintuitive for researchers used to teamwork. ERC provides funding for a single research group led by the principal investigator (PI) ERC projects can include collaborators but it should be made clear that the PI can drive these collaborations and that these people bring something unique to the table. Some examples would be including a medical expert to a humanities project, or researchers who can assist in access to specific data and/or facilities. When choosing collaborators, the leading idea should always be to include the best for the project, whether they are from the next office, or the other side of the globe.
Some notes regarding an ERC application. It is not recommended to recycle (national) grant applications as such for ERC as the scope is more ambitious, the proposed project should be a new opening for the researcher and non-incremental, and there is a lack of consideration for the societal impact. These aspects, among others, make ERC a very different “beast” compared to other funders. The evaluation panels like that the proposal is based on clear scientific challenge and driven by research questions or hypothesis which are supported by some preliminary data to help mitigate the risk and justify feasibility. An often discussed topic is the development of novel methodology that is an item among the evaluation questions. In terms of methods, at least, it is not necessary to develop new approaches if there are existing tools that can “get the job done”. Novelty can be understood broadly e.g. a new combination of existing methods or a new way/field of applying them. Using methods that are familiar to the PI help to lower the operational risk and thus increase the feasibility of the project. Nevertheless, the methodology needs to be justified and explained as to why it is the best for the project. As ERC projects are ambitious and “leaps into the unknown”, a workplan with very detailed work packages, milestones and deliverables are not required. More important than the traditional project management aspects is the description of the research design explaining in detail what you are going to do and providing scientific elaboration on how you will e.g. reach your objectives, answer the research question or test the hypothesis. You are required to have a plan for implementation but it is advisable to leave some flexibility in the plan (with perhaps alternative scenarios listed) so you are able to redirect the research or follow new leads which might arise from partial results. Lastly, the budgets should be realistic as the evaluators are experienced with project management and can identify an improperly resourced budget when they see one!
To finish, an ERC grant is a challenging but a unique and warmly recommended opportunity for a researcher with a promising track-record and ambition to further their career. Ask any of the UOULU ERC grantees and they will confirm. The process itself is “go big or go home” type of affair that demands a lot of effort. As candidates rejected after the first application phase receive restrictions in applying the following years, it is good to make sure that sufficient resources, time and stamina are “present” when applying. Although, this all sounds, well pretty hard, please note that the UOULU research support services are there to help and facilitate the application process. Each candidate will have regular coaching meetings with the support team and a peer mentor. ERC applicants will also have access to training, consultation and other services like graphics, editing, language check etc. when needed. For the applicants who make it to the second round, there will be training for the big interview as well as a 30 000 € incentive to recognize the achievement and encourage resubmission. Finally, ERC provides thorough feedback on all applications that gives the applicants a good starting point to refine or refocus the research idea for resubmission, or to be used in other grant applications!