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Photonics Europe Digital Forum: ERC research funding opportunities outlined

07 Apr 2020

Anna Mignani of the European Research Council describes which projects get funded – and how to qualify.

In a plenary presentation at this week’s SPIE Photonics Europe Digital Forum, Dr. Anna Grazia Mignani, of the European Research Council Executive Agency, outlines the current and likely future funding landscape in Europe.

Dr. Mignani, who also works at the Istituto di Fisica Applicata "Nello Carrara", Florence, Italy, details the potential financial opportunities, collaboration benefits and the application requirements to access the multiple millions of euros the ERC allocates each year. Her presentation can be viewed here on the SPIE Digital Library.

As the European research community approaches the conclusion of the EC-led Horizon 2020 phase of coordinated research funding and management and prepares to enter the Horizon Europe era from 2021, Dr. Migani described Europe-wide funding as “complex and potentially overwhelming with a multitude of pan-European and national funding mechanisms available.”

Her presentation explores some of the options provided by the European Union and ERC as well as presenting some detail on research funding in the UK following that country’s decision to quit the EU.

“The ERC was set up in 2007 by the EU,” she says. “It funds ambitious projects in frontier research, which are curiosity driven. It supports excellent frontier research throughout Europe in all scientific domains: life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, and social sciences and humanities.”

Who is eligible?

Once applicants have convinced the awards panel of their academic credentials and presented a realistic and potentially ground-breaking project plan they can be in line for very substantial grants for up to five years, with the underlying principle of “funding scientific research by scientists for scientists,” Dr. Mignani explains.

There are several different types of ERC funding models: Starting Grants up to €1.5M; Consolidator Grants up to €2M; and Advanced Grants up to €2.5M, all lasting up to five years. These can be enhanced by Proof of Concept Grants to cover the early stages of marketable innovation – up to €150,000 for ERC grant holders. Then Synergy Grants jointly for 2 to 4 principal investigators can be as much as €10M over six years.

Although there are demanding criteria for a project to qualify for an ERC grant, the PIs themselves can be of any nationality, as long as the host institution is located in an EU member state or associated country. “The sole selection criterion is the scientific excellence of the PI and the project. There are no priorities, no quotas, and the host institution itself is not an evaluation criteria,” she asserts.

As well as a promising track record of early achievements (and significant publication in key journals) successful applicants need to demonstrate: the potential for research independence, groundbreaking ideas, and evidence of scientific maturity and creativity. “Invited presentations to conferences, awards, patents, and academy memberships will also help,” she adds.

Black Hole Cam Synergy Grant (2015)

“To give you an idea of the Synergy Grant, consider that the Black Hole Cam Project, funded by ERC in 2015, is a part of the Event Horizon Telescope that last year discovered the black hole.

For the next framework programme, Horizon Europe, the ERC will continue to operate. At the moment, the budget is not yet set. It is under discussion and it will be decided by the end of 2020.

Dr. Mignani says, “The ERC’s Scientific Council has asked to operate in Horizon Europe with continuity, agility and scale-up. Continuity of governance arrangements means independence of the Scientific Council and operational autonomy, with the agility to manage the resources flexibly and to use tailor-made tools when necessary and to scale-up with more funding to ensure better success rates and to support more of Europe’s top performing researchers.”

Concluding with a look at what she calls tentative planning, Dr. Mignani gives a preview of the ERC’s plans for the next few years: “Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Proof of Concept Grants will continue as usual through 2022 but with a delayed time schedule. A normal schedule is expected by mid-2022, there will be no Synergy Grants in 2021 but they are expected back in 2022. There will be two new panels considering research into human mobility, environment and space [SH7] and materials engineering [PE11].”

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