Applying to the ERC Starting Grant
As explained in detail in our Europe and Research page, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is the biggest research fund for Europe and, through its IDEAS programme, it funds Starting Independent Researcher Grants (SIRGs) to support young academics' research. You may want to apply to the ERC for this type of grant
A new call for research proposals opened in summer 2008 and close in the autumn, for info see below
This career tip is largely based on information provided by the EUI Robert Schuman Centre and the experience of EUI History Professor Antony Mohlo, who is a member of one of the ERC panels. As a result, what you find below is not intended to provide a theory on 'applying to the ERC'
However, we believe that this partial information, based on proposals received by Prof. Mohlo's panel, may be of general interest to a wider audience. At the same time, you are invited to 'adjust' this information to your personal needs and to refer to EU online information and guides (see end of page)
The SIRG supports young academics in their transition from supervised work to independent research and career
Multi-disciplinary projects and proposals concerning new and emerging fields, such as 'high gain' proposals, are welcome
The SIRG is meant to make Europe an attractive research area for both European and non-European researchers. Funding varies from €100,000 to €400,000 per grant and per year (up to 5 years; there is no explicit minimum for size or grant or duration)
An applicant to the ERC can be of any nationality or country of residence. She or he will be considered as a sort of 'principal investigator' responsible for carrying out the project. The project can also contain a list of other researchers and academics involved in the research
Applications to the ERC must be made in coordination with a host organisation in one of the EU or associated countries. As an alternative, this organisation can be an international European Interest Organisation or the JRC. You have to receive a declaration of interest from this organisation in order to be able to apply
Note that it will be the organisation that will not only send the application to the ERC but, if the application is successful, will also administer the research fund. The management of the research fund will be the responsibility of the principal investigator
At the EUI, the Robert Schuman Centre may be interested in supporting applications. You should contact the Centre's director or the relevant Head of Department with a draft outline of your proposal. For more information contact [email protected]
Applications, including administrative forms, research proposal and supporting documentation, must be sent via the Electronic Proposal Submission System. They will be directed to the ERC panel that corresponds to the discipline and subjects of the research proposal
Applications go through a first and eventually a second stage. In the first stage, the ERC panel's focus is very much on the quality of the application. In the second, the focus shifts to the quality of the applicant. If you go through both these stages, you will be called for an interview to discuss your project in person
See the links at the bottom of the page for more information and references on the procedure
The SIRG application has three parts
- A fair portrait of yourself as the principal investigator. This includes your CV, a self-evaluation of your research achievements, and your 'funding ID'. The latter is an account of your past and present research projects that should provide a reasonable correlation between the research funding that you received and the outcome of your research: this will show the reviewers whether you can meet their expectations. You should devote three pages to this section in the first stage of your application and eventually four in the second stage
- An accurate research proposal. This should contain a description of the state of the art of research on the topic you deal with, the objective of your research, the methodology, the resources you need to carry out the research, and ethical issues. Four pages in the first stage, ten in the second (this will be the biggest part of your application)
- A description of the research environment in which you will do your research. You should elaborate on the steps you will take towards becoming an independent researcher and how the host institution will meet your research needs. You should also provide a budget and references to your research team. With respect to the latter, you should include academics involved in the project and any research assistant that you will need to support the research. One page in the first stage, two in the second
The SIRG, like other ERC grants, covers all the eligible direct costs, plus up to 20% of all the eligible indirect costs.
Eligible costs are those immediately related to the realization of the project: research, management, training and dissemination activities. Examples are: personnel and equipment costs, consumables, travel and subsistence costs, and publication costs.
Eligible indirect costs are only indirectly related to the conduct of the research. These comprise costs of administration and management, office and lab space, maintenance and insurance, communication expenses (network connections and postal charges), and office equipment (PCs, laptops, software).
The main criterion that guides ERC panels in the selection of proposals is scientific excellence. ERC panels are composed of academics of different nationalities and from different academic backgrounds, who may disagree about and extensively discuss on a project, but will ultimately rely on its quality as a common denominator for deciding which are the successful applications. The specific evaluation criteria can be found in the applicant guide.
Each of the three parts of the project are scored by the ERC panel. In order for the project to be considered, both the first (principal investigator) and the second (research proposal) parts have to obtain at least 4 (each). With respect to the third part (research environment), a pass/fail judgement is made.
Overall, the proposal needs to achieve a score of at least 8 (out of 10) to be considered in stage 1 for stage 2 or in stage 2 for funding. The ultimate decision in both stages however depends on the list in which the proposals are ranked according to score.
Pay attention to the overall quality of the project. Remember that a good idea is not necessarily a good project. The ERC received thousands of projects during the first call, and a huge number of them were not accurately drafted and 'crafted'. With respect to this, support from your host institution may be crucial. In general, applicants from some countries (such as the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Israel) performed better than those from other countries because they had the support of academic cultures and institutions which paid a lot of attention to the formalities and content of research proposals.
Each part of your application should respond to standards of quality. Highlight your potential, creativity and intellectual capacity as principal investigator. In your research proposal, emphasise the innovative nature of your study and its prospected impact on the discipline and theme that you want to deal with. When providing information on the research environment, explain well the relation between, on the one hand your host institution and research team, and on the other the potential of your project and its outcome.
You need to position your research within a certain discipline and theme in a clear and precise way. In this vein, clarify well the state of the art of the subject that you deal with. At the same time explain your personal approach to the subject compared to that of other researchers. The point is to show ERC panellists what field you are entering, the topic, and your personal way of cutting through both.
Methodology matters. Of course, depending on the discipline, you can expect more or less attention from panellists on this issue. As a rule, remember that providing evidence that you have an interesting topic or material on which to work means little if you do not provide a convincing way of treating this material.
You should have a working hypothesis in your project. This does not mean providing the conclusions. However, it is important to show in what direction you want to steer your research.
Accurately plan the money and time that you will need to carry out the project. A lot of applications were eliminated already at an early stage because applicants budgeted an excessive amount of money to complete the research, or stretched the research schedule to an unrealistic period of time. Many applicants were clearly driven by the richness and duration of the SIRG, which fits more long-term, expensive lab-based natural science research projects than the average, single-researcher study in the social sciences and the humanities. However, avoid this type of mistake: be realistic on matters of money and time.
English is preferred but not compulsory. You can draft your project and do the interview in any of the official EU languages. For obvious reasons, many applicants opt for English, and it is true that this can facilitate comprehension by members of ERC panels. However, using English should not undermine the readability of the project. Many applicants performed poorly during interviews because of their limited capacity to formulate and express thoughts in English. Therefore use English only if you are actually able to use it and to express your ideas in a clear and understandable way.
Take care of your writing style. Make your application 'rhetorically convincing'. ERC panellists have to go through a lot of applications: you need to capture their attention by helping them to understand what your project is about and by providing valid arguments why you should receive a grant.
For more information on IDEAS, the SIRG and the application procedure, together with statistics on applications received so far by the ERC, see the following websites:
During the 2007 MWP-ACO conference on academic careers Mr. Peyraube from the CNRS in Paris discussed the ERC and the SIRG. He provided insights and statistics on the first round of applications. Check Mr. Peyraube's PPP and abstract presentations and take a look at the final report from the conference, with Prof. Molho's comment.
Special thanks to:
Prof. Antony Molho, EUI History Department
Ingo Linsenmann, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies