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To submit a successful proposal to a European Research Council call, the project has to be both realistic and ambitious
European Research Council (ERC) grants are extremely challenging and competitive. Under the umbrella of the current Horizon Europe framework programme, an average of ca. 8,000 proposals are submitted annually to the ERC Starting, Consolidator, Advanced, and Synergy grants combined. Among all these proposals pursuing the scientific excellence in frontier research, only around 1,000 proposals are selected every year to be funded, with one of the lowest success rates in EU funding opportunities, generally ranging between 10 and 15% depending on the type of grant.
In view of these results, ERC grants have established themselves as prestigious funding opportunities for ground-breaking research in the EU, pursuing to grant the best researchers in the world who are willing to work in Europe to carry out cutting-edge scientific and technological findings, that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and societal innovations of the future. Pivotal to these grants is the concept of high-risk/high-gain research, which encourages applicants to explore bold and innovative ideas with the potential for significant breakthroughs.
However, understanding how to strike a balance between risk and gain can be difficult for researchers seeking to secure ERC funding. For example, important questions that the ERC Principal Investigators (PI) must address during the preparation of their proposal and that evaluators will have to assess during the thorough step-by-step evaluation procedure include how significant the payoffs of the project will be if the proposed research is successful (high gain), while taking into account the high risk that the research project does not entirely fulfil its aims (high risk).
In the competitive landscape of ERC grants, achieving high gain entails making ground-breaking discoveries, driving scientific advancements, and catalysing societal or economic impacts. For this reason, the ERC supports pioneering proposals of a multi- or interdisciplinary nature addressing new and emerging fields of research or proposals introducing unconventional approaches and scientific inventions. ERC grants favour ambitious research plans that have the potential to yield transformative outcomes. Researchers should outline a clear vision for their project, highlighting how it will challenge existing paradigms, revolutionize methodologies, or pioneer new approaches.
Linked to this, during the evaluation, PIs must be able to provide evidence, based on their track record, of creative thinking and ability to conduct ground-breaking research. Incorporating innovative methodologies and cutting-edge technologies can also enhance the potential for high gain in ERC projects. Researchers should leverage state-of-the-art tools, advanced data analysis techniques, or novel experimental designs to tackle complex research questions. By demonstrating the adoption of pioneering approaches, researchers can showcase their ability to generate unique insights and breakthroughs.
Besides, ERC grants aim to fund research with not only scientific excellence but also significant societal or economic implications. To tackle high gain effectively, researchers should highlight the potential broader impacts of their research. By demonstrating how their findings can address pressing societal challenges, improve human well-being, or contribute to economic growth, researchers can strengthen their case for high gain.
In summary, an ERC proposal successfully addressing its high-gain potential would be able to provide a convincing answer to the questions of to what extent does the proposed research address important challenges and to what extent are the objectives ambitious and beyond the state of the art.
On the other hand, it is of great importance for the success of the proposal to be realistic, while keeping the ambitious and ground-breaking perspective of the project. Frontier research is expected to be risky. In here, PIs should differentiate between conceptual and operational risks. Although it might sound contradictory for many researchers, a high conceptual risk is not only accepted in ERC grants, but encouraged. This is clearly reflected in the guide that the ERC make available every year with information and tips for applicants.
For example, low-risk projects largely consisting in the compilation of existing material in new databases or collections, or mainly focused on incremental research, are unlikely to constitute ground-breaking or “frontier” research, and have therefore few chances to be recommended for funding by the ERC panels. By contrast, the proposals are expected to be based on disruptive scientific hypotheses and assumptions which, although underpinned by early promising results, still need to be investigated and validated.
Thus, it is not about disregarding or hiding existing uncertainties or risks that would most probably arise during the project, but to identify them and show the readiness of the PI to face them as an essential part of any proposal that expects to advance the state of the art and have a transformative potential in any scientific discipline.
Operational risks are assessed in ERC by evaluating to what extent are the proposed research methodology and working arrangements appropriate to achieve the goals of the project, including the adequacy of the proposed timescales, resources, and PI commitment. The ability of the PI to demonstrate his/her experience and capacity to coordinate and execute complex research projects successfully from start to finish is key. Researchers should outline a clear plan, including intermediate milestones, that demonstrates the feasibility of their proposed research. It is crucial to identify potential risks and develop robust mitigation strategies. By acknowledging the uncertainties and outlining contingency plans, researchers can showcase their ability to manage risks effectively. This demonstrates a realistic approach, increasing the credibility of the project.
In conclusion, it is clear that the high risk-high gain paradigm of ERC grants offers a unique opportunity to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, embracing higher uncertainty in the conceptual and methodological design than in other European funding programmes, and recognizing that ground-breaking research often requires venturing into uncharted territories, while taking calculated risks. However, securing an ERC grant through the high risk-high gain approach requires careful navigation and strategic planning.
A crucial aspect to be considered by the PI is to present their projects as unique opportunities to achieve breakthrough discoveries that could have a transformative impact on science and society, while demonstrating the feasibility and scientific merit of their proposed research, thoroughly outlining their research objectives, methodologies, and expected outcomes.
While the official announcement of the new 2024 ERC Work Programme, with a total budget of around €2.2 billion for grants, is expected to be formally published in July 2023, the ERC Scientific Council has already agreed on a tentative calendar for the upcoming grant competitions. They are detailed below with their respective budgets.
Our team in Zabala Innovation is expert in guiding and accompanying our clients, mainly universities and research centres, in the preparation, revision and presentation of their ERC proposals, assessing the high-risk/high-gain potential of their exciting ideas and maximising the competitiveness of their projects.
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We have gathered the most relevant European Programmes calls for proposals in a calendar, available for download!
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