European Union

European Research Council Scientific excellence only

Scientific excellence and cutting-edge investigation will inspire the work of the European Research Council (ERC), the body billed as the first pan-European funding agency for frontier research. That is the message from Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the man who will be the ERC’s Secretary General until June 2009.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the European Research Council.
Sarcophagus discovered during the excavation by the mission of Busbatrion to Sakkara, led by the URA128 laboratory of CNRS. Sarcophagus discovered during the excavation by the mission of Busbatrion to Sakkara, led by the URA128 laboratory of CNRS.
© CNRS Phototèque David Zivie
Silver marmoset Silver marmoset

The ERC is a brand new feature of the EU’s Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7), stewarding the ‘Ideas’ part of FP7 with a budget of €7.5 billion for 2007-2013. Winnacker, the German molecular biologist and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Munich, speaks in his new Brussels office about the ERC’s plans to make a big name for itself in the research world by funding outstanding younger and more experienced researchers from potentially any field in the A to Z of scientific disciplines.

What is the rationale behind the ‘Ideas’ part of FP7?

The rationale is to fund frontier research, investigator-driven research identifying people and projects in any field of science one can think of, including engineering, humanities, everything. The hope is that, through serendipity and hard work, results are achieved that can eventually flow into the innovation process. Scientific excellence - that’s the criterion.The only other condition is that you have to work in Europe. If you are in Tallinn, and can convince the peer reviewers that this is the place to be for your work, then that is fine. Or you could move to somewhere else in Europe if the project so requires. You could also be a Chinese scientist in Shanghai who wants to work in Europe. If this person presents their case well enough, basically it can be done. And there are lots of European researchers working in the US - some could be encouraged by the scheme to come back.

So the conditions are to work in Europe and to be good. Anybody who feels courageous enough to say, “Yes, I am the best, I would win here” should apply.

The prospective grantees decide whether they send in an application, and they have to convince the review panels that they are good and that the host institution is the place to do the proposed research. There is no political reason why you have to do it in a particular place. You have to convince the panels that you and the host institution together are the best thing that can happen.

We have set up 20 peer review panels to study project applications covering the whole spectrum of science from A for archaeology to Z for zoology.

What is the ERC’s launch strategy?

We want to competitively fund frontier research and to this end envisage two funding streams/instruments. The first provides for ERC ‘Starting Grants’ to permit early independence for young scientists between two and nine years after their PhD. A first call for proposals has already been announced with a deadline for applications of April 25. to € 400 000 for whatever the researchers need - their salary, their supplies, everything, so that they will be totally independent.

The second funding stream relates to ERC ‘Advanced Grants’ for more established investigators in the later stages of their profession, where a call for proposals will be announced in spring or summer 2007.

How independent will ERC be?

ERC is a separate executive agency and scientifically it is completely autonomous. The distribution of grants by EU Member States or host institutions is not pre-determined in any way. If all the money happens to go to Britain – that is fine, nobody cares – as long as the condition is scientific excellence. Moreover, the number of people on the ERC’s Scientific Council – 22 – is significant, because it is not 25 or 27, which would indicate to some people that each EU Member State has a seat. In fact, some countries have more than one seat, and some countries have no seat at all. The members are all highly distinguished scientists. This is typical for the entire organisation – the sole basis is scientific excellence.

How can you be sure of attracting the best research talent in Europe?

The reason is that we offer a programme that is simple, best-practice and not bureaucratic. In the rest of the FP there are many niches where you can do investigator-driven research, but it’s not explicitly said and it’s probably more bureaucratically organised, and we try to be as un-bureaucratic as possible.

Of course we have to establish a reputation and that takes a while. The US National Science Foundation is more than 50 years old, the German Research Foundation is 87 years old, and we are just a few weeks old. We hope to establish ourselves rapidly, because we can foster support from the scientific community in Europe and across the world and because we – the panels and so on - use mechanisms that have been optimised worldwide.

Will it be controversial if the ERC is seen to be competing with national research councils?

Hopefully it does [compete]! That’s what we wanted all along, that’s what everybody wanted - excellence through competition. So there is no controversy. It’s always controversial in some senses to set up something new, because people have to understand it and people may be afraid of the change. But as far as the ERC is concerned, everybody is happy that something new happens.

It is also clear that the innovation process requires input from many places and it is a cyclical process that has to be fed with new ideas from creative people before this knowledge is then transformed into jobs. This innovation cycle has to be fed at all stages and we are filling one of those spots.

And what sort of European ‘added-value’ will the ERC bring?

The ERC will spend around €1 billion per year on average. The national councils spend some €22 billion. But the national funding agencies are limited in their activities. Even though they have 20 times more money, they do not always use international peer review.

Then there is the problem of fragmentation and duplication. It has been possible to some extent to send British money to Germany or German money to Sweden, for example, but it is very difficult. It has also been the case that some of the councils are so small they cannot fund their individual researchers appropriately. So there are always limitations to what you can do on a national level, limitations which do not apply here at European level.

What will be the ERC’s international strategy?

We will try to maintain the closest possible contact with the national councils in Europe and the rest of the world because we want to exchange, we want to learn and listen - learn about best practice, new instruments, new funding streams. That is the international strategy. It is only science which counts, there is no political agenda.

What would you like the ERC to have achieved by the end of your term as Secretary General?

I would like to see the best heads in Europe think of the ERC when they want to apply for money, that’s what we want the best reputation possible. There are already high expectations from the scientific community, so we have to fulfil them and even go beyond them as far as possible.


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Frontier Research

“The term ‘frontier research’ reflects a new understanding of basic research. On the one hand it denotes that basic research in science and technology is of critical importance to economic and social welfare, and on the other that research at and beyond the frontiers of understanding is an intrinsically risky venture, progressing on new and most exciting research areas, and is characterised by an absence of disciplinary boundaries” – ERC