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I am a member of one of the European panels which every year selects the best candidates for an ERC Starting Grant. My panel is focused on fundamental physics; there are nine such panels altogether for the “hard sciences” and two other sets for life science and for humanities. Being a panel member for the ERC Starting Grants implies a great commitment and very intensive work, but it is a highly rewarding job. The reason is that these grants effectively boost the research of the best young scientists in Europe, providing them with appropriate means for meeting international competition in their field.
The ERC program has unique features among all those funded by the European Community for supporting research and innovation. It is fully in the hands of the scientists, with very modest administrative support. It is devoted solely to fundamental research, and all proposals are of the bottom-up sort. There is a call once a year and the proposals are reviewed by a panel of experts who are high-level scientists of different European nationalities. The winners receive an award of order 1.5 million euros, to be spent over the five years of the contract. Allowed costs cover personnel (usually PhD students and postdocs, and even partial or total salary of the Principal Investigator), as well as equipment and other items needed for the project.
The evaluation is based both on the high scientific level of the candidate and on the excellence of his or her project. These two criteria are weighted equally by the panel. Four members of the jury scan each proposal for the selection at the first step. At the second step a restricted number of applicants make an oral presentation in front of the members of the jury, who listen to all the candidates selected for this second round, ask questions for 15 to 20 minutes, and are therefore able to evaluate the degree of maturity of the candidate. About 20 % of the applications are ultimately selected. The number of proposals keeps growing each year; the global funding of this very popular program has been increased several times.
A unique feature of the ERC is that excellence is the only criterion used for the selection. There is no attempt to reach an equilibrium between countries; as a consequence the countries of western Europe benefit much more from the program than do the eastern ones, at least in physics and in “hard sciences” in general. The same university and even the same laboratory is entitled to obtain more than one grant, if they put forward the most deserving proposals. Another rule is that no domain of science is privileged: in the fundamental physics panel, cold atoms or quantum information often receive a higher score than other fields. This fact only reveals that some fields today have a stronger power of attraction than others on the most brilliant minds. Of course one can object that “sexy” subjects are more likely to make it through… true enough, but this is how science makes a move and one has to trust the vision of the young scientists.
A constant subject of worry at ERC is to avoid conflicts of interest. The management of the panels is very strict on this matter: for instance, as a CNRS employer I could not participate in any discussion about French applicants, since all the best French laboratories are affiliated with CNRS: This is perhaps going to an extreme, but it is better than the other way round. Minimizing the spread of ideas is another subject of concern, much more difficult to control and in a way unavoidable. Panel members agree to respect confidentiality and are not supposed to talk to anyone about the proposals that they report on. Their names are not revealed until the end of the selection procedure so as to keep them away from any kind of pressure. I am convinced that at the ERC in Brussels ethical issues are taken very seriously.
Finally, one can lament the fact that there is a low rate of success for women in obtaining ERC Starting Grants. In physics, engineering or mathematics, it is not much better than 15%; however this mainly reflects the low number of proposals submitted by women scientists. I can testify that there is absolutely no discrimination against female applicants by the panel I am in, even if there is not gender equality on the jury panel. The percentage of women taking physics as a research subject is still low. In addition, at ERC the problem raised here clearly results from difficulties that women have to face in reaching the required excellence level: multiplicity of burdens in their private life–children, support of their husband’s career, forced mobility, etc. It could also be related to a lack of support in the male-dominated environment of their home laboratory, and perhaps, but more difficult to detect, a lack of self-confidence at equal levels of competence compared to their male colleagues.
In short, whatever the difficulties, the ERC Starting Grant program gives a real boost to research in Europe. Let’s hope that the European Community decides to keep on with it in the future.
Michèle Leduc is a physicist at CNRS, and director of the IFRAF Institute for research with cold atoms.
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