European Research Council (ERC)
The ERC's mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe, fostering the work of established researchers as well as the next generation of independent research leaders. ERC grants, which are awarded through open competition, aim to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields of research on the basis of scientific excellence—the only criterion for selection. Its goal is to recognise the best ideas, while raising the status and visibility of European research.
The ERC has already played a significant role in funding great European research; under the FP7 framework programme (2007–2013) a budget of €7.5 billion funded over 4500 grants. It now continues to support the most talented and creative individuals and their teams under Horizon 2020, the current integrated programme that covers research and innovation funding throughout Europe. The ERC is the main component of the ‘Excellent Science’ pillar of Horizon 2020, and its budget is expected to rise to a total of €13 billion, to be spent over 2014–2020.
Over the FP7 era, Irish-based researchers were successful in winning 35 grants across the various schemes offered by the ERC. However, this corresponded to a success rate over that period that was somewhat lower than might have been expected given the contribution made by Ireland to the EC budget. Considering the combined results from Starting and Advanced Grant during the seven-year FP7 period, Ireland’s success rate was approximately 6%, compared with 7.6% across all applicant countries, and 7.0% across EU countries.
A message from the ERC National Contact Point for Life Science, Physical Science and Engineering
The ERC—already recognised as being the most highly regarded source of funding for “frontier research” in Europe under FP7—represents the most significant part of the Excellent Science pillar of the new Horizon 2020 framework, both in terms of scale and prestige.
SFI, along with colleagues in the Irish Research Council (IRC), act as National Contact Points (NCPs) and as the National Delegate for this highly important programme and work together to provide the best support possible to our research community. The increased budget afforded to the ERC under Horizon 2020 will provide greater opportunities that must be harnessed by researchers here in Ireland. Thus, it is the intention of SFI to dramatically increase national participation and success in all ERC schemes. To achieve this, we are strengthening our resources and, as a starting point, providing our community with more comprehensive information and support to assist in preparing applications. Further, we will continue to support two ERC-related national programmes—the SFI ERC Support Programme and the SFI ERC Development Programme—which provide additional funding opportunities to Ireland’s researchers and institutions.
The ERC is all about excellence and, in particular, an excellent idea; an exciting, challenging and thought-provoking idea that has the potential to effect change in thinking or action in areas across the whole breadth of science, technology and humanities. We understand that it takes time to create and develop excellent ideas, and as such, we ask you to plan carefully and apply to the ERC at the right time. Do not rush into an application; prepare the groundwork, and obtain all of the necessary preliminary data to ensure that your idea has clear potential.
We invite you to read and utilise the information in these pages, which act as a complementary service to on-going activities carried out by the ERC NCPs here in Ireland. We hope that, with our continued support, you will look to apply to the ERC in the near future. We are fortunate to have many excellent researchers across all disciplines in Ireland; we must now demonstrate to Europe and further afield that we can compete and win in this challenging but hugely rewarding arena.
The most up-to-date documents can be found on the ERC website. Further information about ERC grants can be found on the following external websites:
View the list of projects awards as part of the ERC awards programme.
* The awardees marked in the above tables with an asterisk are also winners of an ERC Proof of Concept Grant. This additional funding helps PIs to bridge the gap between their research and the earliest stage of a marketable innovation.
The selection of scientific and scholarly proposals for ERC funding is based on international peer review with excellence as the sole criterion. The ERC uses a typical panel-based system, in which panels of high-level scientists and/or scholars make recommendations for funding.
The panels of each grant are grouped into three disciplinary domains that cover the entire spectrum of science, engineering and scholarship:
- Social Sciences and Humanities (SH)
- Life Sciences (LS)
- Physical and Engineering Sciences (PE)
Research proposals of a multi- and interdisciplinary nature are strongly encouraged throughout the ERC's schemes. Proposals of this type are evaluated by the ERC's regular panels with the appropriate external expertise. Each ERC panel consists of a chairman and 10-15 members. The Panel Chair and the Panel Members are selected on the basis of their scientific reputation. In addition to the Panel Members (who act as “generalists”), the ERC evaluations rely on input from remote experts external to the panel, called referees. They are scientists and scholars who bring in the necessary specialised expertise.
Primary panel structure and description
Physical Sciences and Engineering
All areas of mathematics, pure and applied, plus mathematical foundations of computer science, mathematical physics and statistics.
PE2 Fundamental Constituents of Matter
Particle, nuclear, plasma, atomic, molecular, gas, and optical physics.
PE3 Condensed Matter Physics
Structure, electronic properties, fluids, nanosciences, biophysics.
PE4 Physical and Analytical Chemical Sciences
Analytical chemistry, chemical theory, physical chemistry/chemical physics.
PE5 Synthetic Chemistry and Materials
Materials synthesis, structure-properties relations, functional and advanced materials, molecular architecture, organic chemistry.
PE6 Computer Science and Informatics
Informatics and information systems, computer science, scientific computing, intelligent systems.
PE7 Systems and Communication Engineering
Electronic, communication, optical and systems engineering.
PE8 Products and Processes Engineering
Product design, process design and control, construction methods, civil engineering, energy systems, material engineering.
PE9 Universe Sciences
Astro-physics/chemistry/biology; solar system; stellar, galactic and extragalactic astronomy, planetary systems, cosmology, space science, instrumentation.
PE10 Earth System Science
Physical geography, geology, geophysics, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, climatology, cryology, ecology, global environmental change, biogeochemical cycles, natural resources management.
LS1 Molecular and Structural Biology and Biochemistry
Molecular synthesis, modification and interaction, biochemistry, biophysics, structural biology, metabolism, signal transduction.
LS2 Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology
Molecular and population genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics, computational biology, biostatistics, biological modelling and simulation, systems biology, genetic epidemiology.
LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology
Cell biology, cell physiology, signal transduction, organogenesis, developmental genetics, pattern formation in plants and animals, stem cell biology.
LS4 Physiology, Pathophysiology and Endocrinology
Organ physiology, pathophysiology, endocrinology, metabolism, ageing, tumorigenesis, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome.
LS5 Neurosciences and Neural Disorders
Neurobiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, neuroimaging, systems neuroscience, neurological and psychiatric disorders.
LS6 Immunity and Infection
The immune system and related disorders, infectious agents and diseases, prevention and treatment of infection.
LS7 Diagnostic Tools, Therapies and Public Health
Aetiology, diagnosis and treatment of disease, public health, epidemiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, regenerative medicine, medical ethics.
LS8 Evolutionary, Population and Environmental Biology
Evolution, ecology, animal behaviour, population biology, biodiversity, biogeography, marine biology, eco-toxicology, microbial ecology.
LS9 Applied Life Sciences and Non-Medical Biotechnology
Agricultural, animal, fishery, forestry and food sciences, biotechnology, genetic engineering, synthetic and chemical biology, industrial biosciences; environmental biotechnology and remediation.
Social Sciences and Humanities
SH1 Markets, Individuals and Institutions
Economics, finance and management.
SH2 The Social World, Diversity and Common Ground
Sociology, social anthropology, political science, law, communication, science and technology studies.
SH3 Environment, Space and Population
Sustainability science, demography, geography, regional studies and planning.
SH4 The Human Mind and Its Complexity
Cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, education.
SH5 Cultures and Cultural Production
Literature, philology, cultural studies, arts, philosophy.
SH6 The Study of the Human Past
Archaeology and history.
There are three core ERC funding schemes.
- Aimed at early-career investigators with 2–7 years of experience beyond their PhD with proven potential for research independence and evidence of scientific maturity
- Provides up to €2 million funding over a duration of 5 years
- Aimed at investigators building an independent career with 7–12 years of experience beyond their PhD who can demonstrate a promising track-record of early career achievements
- Provides up to €2.75 million funding over 5 years
- Aimed primarily at well-established independent investigators
- Supports ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new directions in the respective research field
- Provides up to €3.5 million funding over 5 years
Additionally, the ERC offers two minor funding schemes.
Proof of concept
- Open to researchers who have already been awarded an ERC grant
- Helps grant-holders bridge the gap between their research and the earliest stage of a marketable innovation
- Provides up to €150,000 funding over 18 months
Synergy grant (no call planned for 2015)
- Aimed at groups of 2–4 collaborating Principal Investigators and their teams
- Usually supports interdisciplinary groups, which use multidisciplinary approaches to jointly address research problems
- Provides up to €15 million funding over 6 years
Related SFI funding schemes
Given the strong focus of SFI on funding excellent and impactful research, SFI investigators are ideally placed to compete for and win European funding, including through the ERC. SFI is committed in its support and encouragement of Irish-based researchers and their host institutions to ensure the continuing success of Irish applications to the ERC:
SFI ERC support programme (following revision in Q1 2015)
- Assists Host Institutions by providing additional overhead support for ERC awardees
- Provides €150,000 where the ERC award was won in an Irish eligible research body
- Now also offers significant overhead support to institutions recruiting ERC awardees from overseas
- Funding will be based upon which ERC scheme the awardee was successful in, and the time remaining on the ERC award
SFI ERC development programme
- Aimed at researchers that have recently submitted a proposal to the ERC and who have been deemed fundable but were ultimately not funded due to a lack of available programme budget
Other available funding
Enterprise Ireland offers financial support for Irish-based researchers who intend to apply to an EU funding scheme. More information about this support grant can be found here.
Each Member State has National Contact Points (NCPs) whose role is to provide information and support to ERC applicants
What NCPs do
The mission of the ERC NCPs is to raise awareness, inform and advise on ERC funding opportunities. They can also support in the preparation, submission and follow-up of an ERC grant application. Additional services, such as information events, may be provided (for example, mock interview training and non-technical pre-reads).
In addition, a National Delegate is charged with the role of ensuring a national input into the policy and strategy of the ERC, and to ensure that these aspects are reflected as part of the national funding policy. The National Delegate and NCPs are part of the wider Horizon 2020 National Support Network, assisting the research community in participating across all pillars of the Horizon 2020 framework.
The NCPs should be your first point of contact for enquiries regarding the ERC.
Dr Maria Nash, ERC National Delegate and ERC National Contact Point (Life Sciences and Physical Sciences & Engineering)
Mr Paul Kilkenny, ERC National Contact Point (Social Sciences and Humanities)
If you have been asked to come to Brussels for an interview, you should contact the relevant National Contact Point (NCP) about arranging a mock interview. Both SFI and IRC organise such interviews to prepare applicants for the real thing, and these have been shown to be extremely valuable.
- Read the instructions carefully! The interview structure will vary from panel to panel.
- Your time is limited: Look to balance the description of your past achievements and the presentation of your project. Only give a brief overview of your CV, at the very most, since it is contained in the proposal and will have been read by the panel members.
- Remember that the panel members have already studied the written documents that you submitted. Getting to this stage means that they think you are a fundable applicant—use this presentation to convince them that they should fund you.
- The main part of the presentation should be devoted to the research project itself: the innovative aspects, the research team, the methodology, the expected results and the potential contribution to the current state of the art in your field.
- Focus on your idea: Why is it ground-breaking? Why has it not been done before? What impact(s) will be made if/when successful? Is it risky? Briefly discuss a Plan B.
- The panel will have questions about the budget that you have requested—be prepared! There is no time to look in the proposal for details, so be sure to know the justification for each cost.
- Bear in mind that the panel members will already have seen the evaluations from the postal reviewers, which you will not yet have had access to. Ideally, you should make time before the interview to consider the likely technical questions that might be raised, such that you are as well prepared as possible.
- Memorise your plans for dissemination/making impact/innovation.
- Remember, no more than one or two in the panel are likely to be specialists in your field, so plan your presentation accordingly.
- Timing is crucial. You will not be allowed to run over time in your presentation. Consider practicing your presentation using timers/buzzers to keep you in check.
- Important! Don’t leave the key message(s) until the end of presentation.
- Do not cram too much in—use the slides only to emphasise important points
- Avoid repeating text from your proposal—use diagrams/images to illustrate your point
- Good preparation will be appreciated by the Panel (who may have already have been working for two or three days!)
- Inject your talk with energy and passion. Maybe try to lighten the mood (but don’t force jokes!)
- Try to appear relaxed and on top of your subject.
- The panel will try to determine what stage you are at in your career independence; if you wrote the proposal yourself; if you have what it takes to lead a group; if your idea is ground-breaking.
- Prepare backup slides with responses to likely questions (but only present them on request). Likewise, prepare material on your host institution/facilities, but, again, present them only on request.
- Only refer to previous work in order to relate your proposed work to it.
- Reduce references to former mentors/supervisors to an absolute minimum.
- If interdisciplinary elements are in the proposal, be sure to illustrate that you are the senior partner.
- On the day itself: Arrive at least an hour in advance… but avoid pressurised waiting rooms if possible
- Report any potential conflicts to ERCEA staff.
- Try to relax. The questioning may be intense—be prepared.
- Make sure you have saved your presentation in formats that can be viewed on both PCs and Macs.
- Your presentation may be projected onto a screen during the interview. Consider using higher-contrast colours (don’t use yellow on white!!) so that your presentation is easily viewable for the panel members.
- Store your presentation files on USB sticks and make sure you have electronic back-ups that you can access from cloud storage/email just in case.
- Where possible, keep your presentation technologically simple; you do not want your interview to be ruined simply because the PowerPoint animated transitions did not work. Prepare a pdf file of your presentation without any movie clips.
The majority of these tips come from the NCPs’ experience, from feedback received at workshops, and from previous grant winners. Additional advice was sourced from the ERC’s step-by-step guide to applying, and the blog of Prof Andreas Zeller, an Advanced Grant winner based at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany.
Enterprise Ireland offers financial support for Irish-based researchers who intend to apply to EU funding schemes, and there is a dedicated form for prospective ERC applicants. View more information about this support grant.
- One of the most important considerations when thinking about applying to the ERC is to think about when you are going to apply. An ERC application is not something that should be rushed, and it is imperative to allow a significant amount of time to allow ideas to develop, for the necessary preliminary work and data to be obtained, and for the proposal to be carefully written, checked, and revised in order to be in the very best shape for submission. In addition, it is important to be aware of the ERC’s plans for the various schemes in any given year—for example, in 2013 significantly more funding was assigned to the early-career programmes, and this scenario was extended further for 2014. However, in 2015 the balance will shift back in favour of the Advanced Grant scheme for more established researchers. So, it is important to think strategically as well as to spend the requisite time to prepare the very best application possible. Since the ERC’s panel structure essentially remains the same, covering all research topics, and the application format is modified only slightly from year to year, you can start preparing your application at any time. You will need plenty of time and the deadline is strict, so it is best to start early.
- It is highly recommended that you register as an expert for the European Commission. By participating as an evaluator, you will gain invaluable insight into the application process and forge vital relationships within your field.
- It is advisable to prepare the supporting documents early, in particular any concerning eligibility for time extension, or the commitment of the Host Institution
- Be sure to reserve several weeks for writing at the absolute minimum. Assembling your preliminary data, shaping the story, and checking the references is time consuming. Consider a 2–3 week retreat for the writing alone, plus appropriate time for editing and polishing.
- Remember that the applicants you are competing with and the peer reviewers too could be from anywhere in Europe or, indeed, the rest of the world. It is thus important to bear in mind the current status of research internationally, and to write your proposal in a clear and unambiguous manner.
- Get advice. Consult with your host institution well in advance and discuss your budget plan with the relevant person. If your university has support for EU and/or ERC proposals, consult their expertise. If you have a colleague who is already funded by the ERC, discuss your application with them. Contact the ERC National Contact Point for assistance.
- In your proposal, it is very important to clearly and confidently answer the following:
- What is the problem that needs to be solved
- Why is it significant?
- What makes your solution/approach to the problem ground-breaking?
- Clearly describe your ground-breaking idea—explain why it has not been done before. Why will your project make a decisive difference?
- Choose an easily-pronounced acronym for your proposal—this is how the panel members will discuss your project, so make it easy for them.
- Show how the research will provide impact if/when successful. What kind of impact(s) (societal, scientific, financial, etc.)?
- Is your proposal risky? That’s perfect for the ERC, but where appropriate to do so, you should include a brief discussion of a Plan B in order to mitigate some of the risk.
- It is important to demonstrate leadership. Give examples of your track-record, for example:
- Student supervision history—where they are now, their funding successes, etc.
- Your experience in leading research collaborations (national and international).
- If your proposal includes interdisciplinary elements, illustrate how you will be the senior partner in the project.
- You need to provide irrefutable evidence for impact and excellence, e.g., facts on awards, services, papers, talks, students, tools; lasting impact in academia and industry; your quality as networker and advisor; and, last but not least, your ability to shape and create research fields. Don’t be afraid to use numbers such as acceptance rates, citations and downloads where appropriate to do so, but don’t use numbers where you might be compared to other applicants in a negative light.
- Use bibliographic query tools to help you find statistics and numbers for your profile but, again, only use them to give statistics that will clearly be seen in a positive light by reviewers.
- Be specificwhere possible:
- "I am an ABC Fellow" vs. "I am the youngest European ABC Fellow in the field of X".
- "700 citations" vs. "Most cited paper on the subject of X since 1999".
- Avoid any claim that cannot be independently verified.
- The ERC publishes its Work Programme and Information for Applicants (previously the Guide for Applicants). Read all important documents carefully and at all times, ask yourself how your proposal will stand according to the criteria and the process listed.
- Ensure that Part B1 of your proposal is approachable and convincing to specialists and non-specialists alike. Part B1 is evaluated only by panel review, by reviewers who can have specific or general knowledge of the field. Thus you should look at the disciplines represented on your panel and at the panel members in previous years to obtain an idea of the level of prior knowledge that you can assume.
- Consider carefully which panel you would like your proposal to be allocated to. Your project may be eligible for consideration by a number of panels, so you can choose the one in which you think your proposal will be the most competitive. Annex 1 in the Information for Applicants (to any scheme) provides a detailed description of the panels and sub-categories. It is recommended also to talk to previous ERC winners, applicants and panel reviewers, where possible, to get advice on the best panel to apply to.
- In preparing Parts B1 and B2, ensure they are written such that a reviewer need not refer to one part in order for the other part of the proposal to make sense. Do not just copy and paste Part B2 from B1.
- Reviewers for your proposal will be chosen based on Part B1. While you cannot suggest potential reviewers, you can influence the process by citing the appropriate experts clearly in this section.
- Have a clear structure and plan. Describe the tasks, dependences, milestones, evaluations, and measurable success criteria.
- If you are working with a collaborator, clearly outline the division of work and how their work will be funded, and provide contingencies for the possibility of their failure.
- Starting Grant/Consolidator Grant specific suggestions:
- Demonstrate your independence both in the profile and in your responses to questions at the interview stage.
- Describe your international experience and how it has benefitted your career.
- Explain how the award will enhance your independent career and how your plans align to the aims and goals of the ERC programme.
- Be aware of a potential Irish independence advantage—many Irish-based early-career researchers may have more experience of supervision and reviewing than their European counterparts.
- Endeavour to reduce any references to former mentors/supervisors to a minimum.
- You should be aware that the peer reviewers have to process many applications in a very short period, so make your application easy to read:
- Identify your aims and hypotheses right at the beginning. Do not wait until the end to describe your important ideas and impacts.
- Structure your text using elements such as subheadings and bullet points. Use indexes and summaries.
- Use tables and diagrams (legible in black and white).
- Emphasise particularly important sentences using appropriate formatting and highlighting.
- The reviewer should be interested in your proposal after just a short glimpse. The message has to be in the title, in the abstract, in the figures, in the diagram, in the examples. Get to the point quickly. Use clear language: No buzzwords! Important parts of your proposal should be eye catching.
- Get plenty of feedback. Your story must appeal to readers no matter what discipline they are working in. Discussing your ideas and your proposal with as many people as possible and as diverse a group as possible will help. If you fear the message could be too complex, get feedback from others.
- If English isn’t your native language, ask at least one native speaker to proof-read the proposal.