Strategies to boost the performance of V4 countries in the grant schemes of the European Research Council

The delegations of the V4 Academies started their two-day forum with a workshop dedicated to the performance of V4 countries in the grant schemes of the European Research Council. Below is a summary of the main messages of the workshop.

2022. június 10.

In the opening remarks delivered by Professor Eva Kondorosi, former Vice President for Life Sciences of the European Research Council (ERC), a short outline was given of the initiatives and tools that have been introduced in the course of the ERC’s 15 years of existence in order to tackle the problem of low performance at ERC calls by applicants based in one of the EU13 Member States, among them the V4 countries. To deal with this specific issue, the Scientific Council of the ERC set up a Working Group for Widening European Participation in 2014, of which Professor Kondorosi was the first chair. After the Working Group had conducted a large-scale survey among researchers of the countries concerned to find out the reasons behind low performance, the ERC decided in 2015 to launch the Visiting Fellowship Programme, which was designed to offer prospective ERC applicants the possibility of visiting an ERC grantee’s lab / research team before applying to an ERC call. The Programme was introduced in response to what the survey had identified as major reasons for poor performance: lack of mobility, lack of international experience and lack of sufficiently ambitious project ideas.

After the opening remarks, Dr Philippe Cupers, Head of Unit ‘Life Sciences’ of the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA), delivered a presentation about the ERC, consisting of three parts: 1) a general description of what funding opportunities the ERC had to offer under the Horizon Europe framework programme; 2) the statistics of performance in ERC calls of widening countries, including V4 countries; 3) the ERC’s initiatives for increasing participation of ‘widening countries’: the ‘ERC Visiting Fellowship Programme’ & the ‘ERC Mentoring Initiative’. Dr Cupers pointed out a problem with the success rate structure: the EU13 success rate is much lower at Step 1 of the evaluation process than that of the EU15, while at Step 2 of the evaluation, the success rates across all countries are similar. He remarked that Hungary’s or the Czech Republic’s success rate at Step 2 is even proportionally higher than that of Germany. The statistics highlight that the issue is definitely at Step 1: this is where some efforts will have to be made to reverse the negative trends of EU13. Also, at Step 1, EU13 applicants tend to receive a higher number of C grades (this is the lowest score in the evaluation of a proposal) than the average for all countries.

Dr Cupers stressed that in introducing Widening Participation policies, the ERC has kept and will continue to keep itself to the principle of excellence, that is, the criterion of excellence is non-negotiable. In discussing the achievements of the ERC Visiting Fellowship Programme (VFP), he acknowledged the positive changes brought about by this scheme: the success rate of VFP fellows was clearly higher than that of the Widening countries, and it was especially true for the Starting Grant. At the same time, he said it is regrettable that the number of ERC grantees who are willing to host EU research visitors under this Programme is much higher than the number of visiting researchers (that is, the supply is much higher than the demand).

Dr Cupers also recalled that the ERC’s budget is limited, which means that there are many excellent proposals which receive an ‘A’ grade at Step 2 and still do not get funded due to financial constraints, these are the so-called “unfunded A’s”. To provide funding for these, and in many cases also for Step 2 grade ‘B’ proposals, many national support schemes have been put in place.

Finally, Dr Cupers outlined the recently launched ‘Mentoring Initiative’ scheme by the ERC, in the framework of which 750 ERC grantees and former panel members have expressed their interest in becoming mentors for ERC applicants. Implementation under this scheme is completely up to the local national agencies, with coordination to be provided by the ERC National Contact Points. As the scheme kicked off in 2021, it is too early to report on major results, but positive effects may be expected soon.

Dr Cupers’ presentation was followed by individual presentations of each V4 Academy, in which the delegates reported on measures taken by their own academy or by a joint effort of the larger scientific community in order to boost performance at ERC calls. Expert groups for supporting ERC applicants, follow-up possibilities for unsuccessful applicants, setting up of dedicated programmes or search committees to look for suitable applicants were all listed among the actions taken.

After the reports of the V4 Academies , the representative of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE) gave a talk in which she drew the attention to the YAE’s efforts in helping young ERC applicants: they have recently organized two mentoring events for Starting Grant applicants, in which they have offered one-to-one mentoring as well as the presentation of a mock panel meeting in each of the three scientific domains, all with a view to encouraging early-career researchers to apply and raising their awareness about the actual evaluation process of the ERC.

In a Q & A session held by the workshop, the participants touched upon the major issues which emerged from the presentations as most critical: the number one priority was the poor performance of widening countries at Step 1 of the ERC evaluation process. While some participants held that this could mainly be put down to criteria related to the ‘quality of the Principal Investigator (PI)’ which researchers coming from a widening country would find harder to fulfil, such as publication record and a convincing CV, others were of the view that failure at Step 1 was due to the weak scientific content or the poorly written scientific proposal. Dr Cupers, representing the ERC in this debate, firmly held that the excellence of the proposed research project takes precedence over that of the PI. In this regard, he pointed out that the ERC had always been reluctant to set any specific conditions for specific countries, in an attempt to allow for considering some aspect specific to the given country, as they want to ensure fairness towards all applicants, regardless of the country of their host institutions. The debate on how the quality of the PI and the quality of the scientific proposal should be balanced led the participants to the hot topic of research assessment strategies. Rethinking of research assessment strategies and introduction of new ones is currently on the agenda of the global scientific community, marked by the signing of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) in 2012. As was mentioned at the workshop, the ERC has recently agreed to sign DORA and has set up a task force within the Scientific Council to work on the research assessment issue. The task force is expected to deliver their findings towards the end of this year.

Click on the photo to see a photo gallery Photo: / Tamás Szigeti

The participants in the workshop concluded that each of the measures, actions, tools and schemes mentioned in their discussion – be it the use of search committees to find the best ERC applicants, the assistance provided by young academies (Young Academy of Europe in particular), the help offered by ERC grantees and former panel members in the form of mentoring, the development of research infrastructure and offering the best conditions in terms of administrative support, administrative flexibility at the research institutions to make these places attractive for doing research, and the setting up of organizational structures that encourage the independence of early-career researchers – was worth considering, as each of these had their own place in the successful strategy for a higher performance at ERC.

Please find the detailed programme of the event and the presentations availbale for download below.

Visegrad Group Academies Forum - Program

ERC workshop co-organized with the ERC Executive Agency (ERCEA) an event within the Visegrad Group Academies Forum
26-27 May, 2022, Budapest

Introductory lecture by Philippe Cupers (ERCEA Head of Unit “Life Sciences”)

  • ERC funding opportunities in Horizon Europe
  • Statistics of performance in ERC calls of widening countries, including V4 countries
  • ERC initiatives for increasing participation of 'widening countries': the 'ERC Visiting Fellowship Programme' & the 'ERC Mentoring Initiative'
  • Q & A
  • [Presentation - PDF]

Best practices in V4+ countries, at research institutions and universities, mentoring activities of young academies offered for early-career researchers

  • Presentations in 5-10 minutes each on institutional support strategies to enhance performance in ERC calls:
    • Jan Vondráček, Member of the Academy Council of the Czech Academy of Sciences [Presentation - PDF]
    • András Stipsicz, Director of Rényi Alfréd Institute of Mathematics, ELKH Hungary [Presentation - PDF]
    • Zuzana Hrabovská, Project Manager, Department of Science and Research, Slovak Academy of Sciences [Presentation - PDF]
    • Paweł Rowiński, Vice-President, Polish Academy of Sciences[Presentation - PDF]
  • Young Academy of Europe’s mentoring activities related to ERC grant applications

Moderated open discussion

moderated by Éva Kondorosi, Member of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors of the European Commission; Former Vice-President of the European Research Council
discussion with special focus on career development strategies for early-career researchers