Europe’s generous yet ultra-competitive grant program is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this month. Over the years, EPFL researchers have been awarded more than one hundred such grants, making EPFL Switzerland’s top recipient of this prestigious funding.
"Thanks to the considerable amount of funding that the ERC grant provides over five years, I can study two complementary aspects of uranium isotopic fracturation at the same time," said Rizlan Bernier-Latmani, a professor in the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory. She’s just received one of these ultra-competitive European research grants. "It’s a real boost to my career, and it means I can work right at the interface between two fields, which is uncommon."
Launched ten years ago, the European Research Council (ERC) initiative has really transformed the landscape of European research. Some 7,000 researchers of all nationalities have received funding for projects involving around 40,000 staff. Each year, the ERC pays out close to two billion Swiss francs.
A 30% success rate
Switzerland ranks fifth in terms of recipient countries, with nearly 500 ERC grants awarded to researchers in Switzerland over the last ten years. And EPFL, which has been awarded 116,* comes in fourth among Europe’s higher education institutions, behind three UK universities. It is closely followed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (110 grants). For Switzerland’s two institutes of technology, this achievement is even more impressive given that they missed out on two application rounds in 2014 as a result of the referendum on mass immigration, which took place on 9 February of that year. Beyond these absolute figures, the recent success rate of EPFL applicants is impressive: more than 30% of applicants have been awarded a grant, compared with the average of around 10%.
"That illustrates just how good our researchers are," stated Michele De Palma, who has just been awarded a Consolidator Grant, after first receiving a Starting Grant. "The Research Office and the central services also provide significant support when it comes to the applications and the selection interviews." The grants are awarded to individuals, which gives researchers more freedom to carry out their projects. Like De Palma, several researchers arrive at EPFL with their ERC grant already in hand, which means even more funds for the university.
Only high-risk and groundbreaking projects are successful, in recognition of their pursuit of scientific excellence. "For a researcher, applying for an ERC grant is also a time to reflect on what you want to do for the next five years," commented Denis Duboule, a professor in the Laboratory of Developmental Genomics, who has already received two Advanced Grants.
"In five years, you have time to get some interesting findings and publish them," said De Palma. Duboule, however, thinks that more flexibility wouldn’t be a bad thing: "When you get a grant, you can’t always find four highly skilled researchers straight away. Setting up the project can take time, and projects should be allowed to be spread over six or seven years."
*total for 2007 to 2015 + Starting and Consolidator Grants in 2016
Four types of grants
ERC funding is given to scientists, regardless of their age or nationality, so that they can conduct research in one of the 27 EU Member States or associated countries.
- Starting grant: for researchers with two to seven years of experience after the PhD; up to 1.5 million euros awarded for five years.
- Consolidatorgrant: for researchers with seven to 12 years of experience after the PhD; up to 2 million euros awarded for five years.
- Advanced grant: for seasoned researchers with an established reputation; up to 2.5 million euros for five years.
- Proof-of-concept grant: awarded to researchers who have already received an ERC grant, to support them in marketing or applying their findings.