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EU's 'frontier funder' turns five

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe ERC funds activity across all fields of research, with the emphasis squarely on excellence

British-based scientists have received almost a billion euros in funding from the European Research Council (ERC) since it was set up five years ago.

The UK has been by far the most successful EU nation in winning grants from the agency that prioritises frontier, or "blue skies", study.

Many were sceptical of the ERC's mission when it was first proposed in the early 2000s.

But its budget will nearly double in Europe's next funding round.

"The fact that you can express it in so few words is a very powerful statement by the European Commission," said Prof Donald Dingwell, the ERC's secretary-general.

"They're telling the world they want to double what they call blue skies research - what I call 'the best research'.

"That is the most astonishing testimony from a political system when you look at all the other headlines coming out about the future of Europe and its financial state," he told BBC News.

Billion-euro boon

The ERC was launched in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 27 February, 2007.

It was told simply to target the best ideas, and to actively take some risks - to back research where the outcomes might be far from certain.

And it stipulated that grants awarded should go to the scientists themselves, not to the institutions where they worked.

The initial budget to cover the period 2007-2013 was 7.5bn euros (£6.4bn). The next instalment, to run from 2014 to 2020, is proposed to be 13.2bn euros (£11.1bn).

In setting up the ERC, the Commission (the executive arm of the 27-nation EU) hoped also to drive competition across the science base.

Grants are not given out on the basis of any sort of geographical quota or on nationality. Indeed, the grantee does not even have to be European. All they have to establish is the excellence of their endeavour and that at least 50% of their time will be spent in one of the EU or its associated countries.

The possibility exists, therefore, for nations and institutions to go and head-hunt the best scientists in the world, promising them a lab and back-up facilities if they can first win an ERC grant.

"Universities are certainly recognising that the ERC is a way they can compete with each other," said Prof Dingwell.

media captionProf Donald Dingwell: 'Something needed to change in Europe'

"They have to in the sense that these grants belong to the people and not to the universities - and people do move. Unless those universities provide the best conditions, the scientist will walk, either at the end of the grant or even during it."

The system has clearly benefited the UK. A fifth of all the grants (by year end 2011) have come to British-based researchers - 550 of them, valued at over 922 million euros (£782m).

Scientists working at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial and UCL have done particularly well out of the ERC, perhaps not surprisingly given their known strengths.

When the ERC was set up, the journal Science dubbed it the "Champions' League" for grants, and in the case of the UK, this football analogy is very apt. Some 44% of all the awardees are not British - just like the army of overseas footballers who now ply their trade in the English topflight.

image captionDingwell and Boivin say one of the ERC's key remits should be to drive competition across Europe

Dr Nicole Boivin is a classic example. She is a Canadian archaeologist, drawn to Britain by the excellence of some of its institutions and facilities, and its intellectual climate.

She is investigating the initial steps to globalisation, with particular reference to the Indian Ocean where some of the first major cross-cultural interactions took place thousands of years ago. Her project employs some innovative approaches, pulling together expertise from a range of disciplines - not just standard archaeology, but fields such as historical linguistics, molecular biology and palaeo-environmental studies.

"The ERC is amazing because they really advocate multidisciplinarity," she told BBC News.

media captionDr Nicole Boivin: 'We have become very risk-averse in funding decisions'

"In the UK, there's a lot of talk about how we should be more multidisciplinary, but the Research Councils tend to reflect specific research areas and if you come up with a project that bridges those different areas, it can be quite hard to get funding."

It is an old adage that high standards are required to get to the top, only matched by the standards required to stay there. And Dr Boivin has a competitive warning for the UK where national science funding is going through a period of stagnation after a decade of growth.

"Cambridge and Oxford are no longer at the top of the international university league tables; they're starting to slip down a bit," she said.

"I think it's something Britain should be really alarmed about. It's what Britain has always excelled at - education and research.

"They should be doing a lot more to stay at the top, to continue to attract big-name researchers and to do high-level research, but that takes money and that money has to be invested." and follow me on Twitter

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