What it takes to win an ERC starting research grant

According to the ERC (European Research Council) webpage, ERC Starting and Consolidator Grants (from now on just ERC grants) “aim to support up-and-coming research leaders who are about to establish a proper research team and to start conducting independent research in Europe”. In brief, candidates for ERC grants are researchers of any nationality with 2-7 (Starting) and 7-14 (Consolidator) years of experience since completion of PhD. A project must be submitted. Research must be conducted in a public or private research organization located in one of the EU Member State or Associated Countries. The funding is up to € 1.5 (Starting) to 2 (Consolidator) million, and the duration is up to 5 years. The sole criterion for assigning a ERC grants is excellence, considering both publication record and the proposed project. According to official stats, the overall success rate for ERC grants in 2013 was 9%.

Up to 2011, the most successful institutions (combining starting and consolidator grants) were CNRS (France), University of Cambridge (UK), University of Oxford (UK), Max Planck Society (Germany), EPFL (Lusanne, Switzerland), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel), ETH (Zurich, Switzerland), Imperial College (London, UK), University College London (UK), Weizmann Institute (Israel).

For Marie Curie Fellowships  (data is for year 2012), success rate was 19.19% for Intra-European Fellowships, and 20.09% for International Outgoing Fellowships (I have one of those). So, there is a substantial drop in success rate (as expected) going from MC Fellowships to ERC grants .

There are 3 domains for ERC grants: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Social Sciences & Humanities.

The Life Sciences domain is divided in 9 more specific categories:

  • LS1 Molecular & Structural Biology & Biochemistry
  • LS2 Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics & System Biology
  • LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology
  • LS4 Physiology, Pathophysiology & Endocrinology
  • LS5 Neurosciences & Neural Disorders
  • LS6 Immunity & Infection
  • LS7 Diagnostic Tools, Therapies & Public Health
  • LS8 Evolutionary, Population & Environmental Biology
  • LS9 Applied Life Sciences & Non-Medical Biotechnology

I will focus on sub-domain LS8 Evolutionary, Population & Environmental Biology since it is the one closer to my research interests and activities.

For the 2013 round, there were 9 winning researchers of ERC Starting grants (I could not find info for the Consolidator grants, it might be they are not out yet) whose projects fell into the LS8 subdomain, 4 are women and 5 are men. I was able to check CV/publications of all of them.

In particular, I checked where they published their first-author publications (nobody knows the contribution of the third author in a 7-author publication in Science. Did she/he provided some kind of feedback? Contributed to the idea? Helped with analysis, programming, statistics etc.? Provided moral support? Who knows). I just recorded the best journals in which they published as first-authors. "Best journals" was defined just in terms of reputation/historical ranking of the journal, without any formal threshold. I won’t name names (all bullets below are anonymous), but you can google yourself if you are so inclined. Here we go, each bullet point is for a single researcher:

  • Journal of Theoretical Biology,  PNAS (multiple times), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society  B, Genetics.
  • Trends in Genetics, Molecular Ecology (multiple times), BMC Evolutionary Ecology, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
  • Science, Functional Ecology, American Naturalist, PNAS, Conservation Biology.
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society B (multiple times), Evolution (multiple times), PNAS, Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
  • PNAS, Nature Geoscience, Science, Geology.
  • PNAS, Science, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Trends in Genetics.
  • Nature, Science, Ecological Applications, American Naturalists, Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology.
  • Science, PNAS, Ecology Letters, Functional Ecology, Annual Review in Ecology and Systematics, Nature.
  • Science, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Proceedings of the Royal Society B (multiple times), American Naturalist, Molecular Ecology, Evolution.

So, 8 out 9 winners published in a top multidisciplinary journal (Science, Nature, PNAS), some of them multiple times, some of them also as coauthors (it is possible that the researcher who did not come up with a publication in Science, Nature, PNAS actually published there, but I did not get it). All of them published in top journals either in the "Ecology" or "Evolutionary Biology" category (some of them in both).

All of them are specialized researchers, they work on one (or some very closely related) problem(s) (with exceptional results, see above), but without much diversification (no formal threshold also in this case, I just read the publication titles/research interests).

It seems that publishing in a top multidisciplinary journal is a (almost) necessary (although likely not sufficient, other researcher may have published in top multidisciplinary journals, but did not win) condition to win an ERC grant, isn’t it?

Something to keep in mind in the case you want to apply for an ERC grant (clearly stated also here "[...] including significant publications (as main author) in major international peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journals, or in the leading international peer-reviewed journals of their respective field").

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