ERC starting grant winners set out their plans
The first winners of the ERC (European Research Council) starting grant explained how they planned to use their funding and gave their opinions on the workings of the ERC at a meeting in Paris, France, on 7 October. They praised the organisation's recognition of cross-disciplinary research and emerging fields, the portability of the grants and the size of the rewards, which allows them to focus on their work for five years without having to spend time looking for funding. The area that needed the most improvement, according to the recipients, was the panel-selection aspect of the application process. The ERC's recognition of new fields was seen as invaluable. Dr David Holcman of the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS), France, a leader in the emerging fields of computational biology and modelling cell biology, said, 'The ERC is a great opportunity for us young scientists, because it prevents local politics from interfering with the scientific process.' Dr Esperanza Alfonso, a research fellow at the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences of the CSIC in Madrid, Spain, also appreciated the recognition of cross-disciplinary areas: 'To give students a real opportunity to flourish they must be allowed to work across departments and disciplines,' she said. 'This difficulty of crossing departments is not unique to Spain or even Europe.' Dr Alfonso studies mediaeval cultural diversity, specifically the sharing of information and iconography between the sacred texts (which defined all aspects of life) of Jews, Muslims and Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. Dr Alfonso also highlighted the neglected state of humanities research worldwide. In this first round of starting grants, the ERC awarded 27 grants to humanities researchers and 30 to social scientists. According to Dr Alain Peyraube, member of the ERC scientific council, this represents a much higher level than national or EU sources have typically given. Before receiving the ERC grant, Dr Alfonso had received a total of EUR 5,000 in grants from Spain. 'The ERC grant,' she said, 'absolutely gives me freedom and independence.' Dr Guillaume Dubus, an astrophysicist working at the Grenoble Astrophysics Laboratory in France, studies high-energy gamma ray observations. He is involved in the HESS (high-energy stereoscopic system) collaboration and the Fermi Space Telescope collaboration. 'Gamma-ray observations are coming in now,' he said. 'There is strong international competition to obtain results, and these studies require expertise in many fields.' The ERC grant will enable Dr Dubus not only to make use of very expensive equipment, but to focus on analysing the data. He explained that normally grants will fund the use of equipment, 'but then when it comes to getting paid to analyse the data, funding usually breaks down. You need to have funds to invite people like postdocs and PhD students to analyse the data.' The ERC grant will allow him to see his projects through. According to the grant recipients, the ERC application process has room for improvement; in particular, the process of selecting a panel was seen as flawed. One reason for this is that the face of science is changing: there are many emerging fields, such as biophysics, where the cross-over between disciplines makes selecting the right reviewers difficult. Dr Ivo Gomperts Boneca of the Pasteur Institute in France commented, 'You need to find the right people with the right expertise to read the submission. [...] It would be beneficial for the scientist to be able to apply to several panels at the same time; this would prevent [the ERC] from losing the best.' Dr Boneca studies Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes gastric ulcers and stomach cancer and infects about half of the world's population. 'This is really transversal as a project. It's all about immunology and I'm a bacteriologist with a background in chemistry. There are a lot of different disciplines involved.' The research environment of the UK was the topic of some discussion, and those who had spent time working there shared their perspectives. Dr Maja Pantic of Imperial College London, UK, who studies machine analysis of human nonverbal communication, explained: 'There is more of a level playing field: the hierarchy is less overwhelming. You have more choice of who you work with.' Thomas Mrsic-Flogel of University College London, UK, who studies how experience shapes the function and wiring of the brain, added: 'In Germany the likelihood of getting funding as an early researcher, or prospects for a permanent position early in your career, are much less.' The portable nature of the grant defines its flexibility, and the starting grant recipients were all very enthusiastic about being able to take their funding with them. One recipient commented, 'It's psychologically nice to know that you can leave. You can focus on your work. The University is aware of it and is therefore more accommodating.' Another reflected that the grant's portability 'is good for researchers and makes institutions compete for ERC grant recipients'. The young researchers had some practical advice to the next round of applicants. Dr Mrsic-Flogel explained that although the application says that the research 'should be adventurous or even risky', you really have to choose something that is 'doable'. 'It has to be exciting or important,' he said. Dr Dubus commented that the ERC 'gives evaluation and recognition at the international level. By trusting young scientists it gives us a chance. Without the ERC's funding my ambitions would have been limited and I would be able to have much less of an impact in this field.' Dr Boneca added: 'The ERC is a great idea that was missing in Europe. Despite the fact that we are researchers and love what we do and are clearly not doing it for the money, it's a market like any other market. A market of bright scientists. The ERC highlights that.'