‘An ERC Grant is the pinnacle of recognition’

‘ERC Grants reward scientific excellence,’ emphasises François Bussy. (Félix Imhof © UNIL)

Francine Zambano / L’Uniscope
The European Research Council (ERC) is this year celebrating ten years in existence. The fund awards grants to top European researchers. What is its significance for UNIL? Here François Bussy, Vice Rector for Research and International Relations, explains.

What was the background to the creation of the European Research Council (ERC)?

François Bussy: The ERC was set up at the end of February 2007 as part of the European Union’s seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7 2007-2013). It is the first pan-European funding agency for research ‘at the frontier of knowledge’. The ERC supports pioneering research and its sole selection criterion is scientific excellence. The first call for proposals triggered more than 9000 applications, which testifies to the enormous expectations of European scientists. In Horizon 2020, the eighth Framework Programme which runs from 2014 to 2020, the ERC forms part of the first pillar, Excellent Science.

What are the particular features of ERC Grants?

They reward scientific excellence and offer the means and freedom to undertake cutting-edge research projects in a field and on a subject of one’s choosing. The grants, awarded for a maximum of five years, are attached to researchers who are free to transfer them to another host institution, should they so wish.

Which types of researcher may apply?

There are several categories. ERC Starting Grants concern early-career researchers between two and seven years after their PhD. ERC Consolidator Grants are devoted to those with proven excellence, between seven and twelve years after their PhD. ERC Advanced Grants concern senior academics, leaders of research groups, who benefit from a firmly established international reputation. Researchers in all three categories are represented at UNIL (see the UNIL ERC Grants page).

In what way are these grants important for UNIL?

Firstly, for financial reasons: we’re talking about total grants of between 1.5 and 2.5 million euros for an ERC project. Thirteen FP7 projects, for example, received an average of 2.14 million. In 2015 UNIL therefore benefited from 9.5 million Swiss francs. Funds are awarded to researchers but must be managed by the institution, which is responsible for their correct use.

How are these funds used?

A distinction should be made between natural sciences and human and social sciences projects. If one looks at grants obtained by the Faculty of Biology and Medicine (FBM), it can be seen that 67% of the overall total was spent on staff costs, essentially PhD researchers and junior and senior postdocs. The funds are therefore used to recruit scientists, something that is particularly useful to UNIL. In the case of FBM again, a quarter of the money is spent on platforms, imaging, etc. The remainder consists of expenditure on equipment, consumables, travel and conferences. In human and social sciences, 92% of funds are used to hire staff and the remainder is allocated to travel and conference expenses. This financial windfall, although marginal in terms of UNIL’s budget, makes it possible to employ researchers, which is obviously extremely important.

Aside from the financial interest, what are the other advantages for UNIL and for researchers?

It is extremely good for a researcher’s reputation. Whoever receives a grant can take pride in it, as the selection process is extremely rigorous. And if you obtain one of these grants, you are guaranteed to be scrutinised by the harshest committees of experts at European level. It is therefore hugely gratifying for the researcher. An ERC Grant is the pinnacle of recognition. In addition, there is always feedback from these committees of experts, whether or not the researchers secure a grant. They provide constructive criticism, which enables scientists to improve their project. When certain political parties, following the vote in 2014, affirmed that Switzerland could perfectly well finance these projects without Europe, the research community reacted strongly. They did not want reduced competition that did not involve all the best researchers and experts at international level.

What constraints do researchers face?

There are relatively few administrative constraints; two scientific reports are required, one mid-project and the other at the end. A financial report must be submitted every eighteen months, drawn up by the institution’s central services. Obviously, in terms of management, it is crucial to observe the rules of the ERC and of UNIL. There is, moreover, provision made for increased support for researchers during the post-award period.

UNIL has secured thirty ERC Grants in ten years. How is it placed in relation to other higher education institutions?

The ERC comprises three main panels: Life Sciences (LS), Physical & Engineering Sciences (PE) and Social Sciences & Humanities (SH). By the nature of their activities, the Swiss Federal Polytechnics (EPF) are obviously best placed to secure this type of subsidy. Compared with other Swiss universities, UNIL is, however, well ranked, if one takes into account the fact that it does not include research in physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering.

For your part, what are you intending to do to encourage more UNIL researchers to apply?

Through UNIL’s external Euresearch unit, we explain the issues using testimony from those who have benefited from grants. We would like our researchers to engage directly with excellence, to want to compete, as indeed it is about a competition, notably to obtain feedback on the quality of their research and to gain renown. This calls for a sense of ego, it must be said. We want to exploit the enthusiasm, personal motivation and European recognition of the researchers who secure these grants.

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