So what has the ERC ever done for us? Quite a lot, say Cambridge academics, as they mark the 10th anniversary of Europe’s premier research-funding body

The financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world. Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.

Prof. Simon Goldhill, CRASSH

When European government representatives met in Lisbon in the year 2000, and expressed an aspiration that Europe should become the world's leading knowledge economy by 2010, they agreed on the need to create a body to “fund and co-ordinate basic research at European level”.

This was the impetus underlying the creation, in 2007, of the European Research Council (ERC).

Ten years after its foundation, the ERC has become a European success story. It has supported some 6,500 projects through its prestigious grants, and has become a unique model for the fostering and funding of innovative academic research.

To mark the anniversary, events are being held across Europe during ERC Week, running from 13-19 March. At the University of Cambridge, various recipients of ERC grants will be sharing their findings with a wide audience in talks scheduled as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research will be joining in ERC Week celebrations by hosting a conference on Thursday, 16 March.

On the same day, a reception for Cambridge recipients of ERC grants, attended by ERC president Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, will be held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is currently showing the ERC-supported exhibition, “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”.

The ERC supports outstanding researchers in all fields of science and scholarship. It awards three types of research awards (Starter, Consolidator, Advanced) through a competitive, peer-reviewed process that rewards excellence. Its focus on “frontier research” allows academics to develop innovative and far-reaching projects over five-year periods.

The United Kingdom has been the largest recipient of ERC awards –between 2007 and 2015, it received 24% of all ERC funding.

To date, the ERC has supported 1524 projects by UK-based academics. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have won 218 of those grants, in fields ranging from Astrology to Zoology.

“What is special about an ERC grant?”, asks Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, who was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for her project “IN-AFRICA”, which examines the evolution of modern humans in East Africa.

“An obvious side is that it’s a lot of money. But I think it’s more than just the money. Because it’s five years, the ERC grant allows you to get a group and build a real community around the project. It also allows you to explore things in greater depth.”

An ERC grant allowed Dr Debora Sijacki, at the Institute of Astronomy, to attract “a really competitive and international team, which otherwise would have been almost impossible to get.”

Being funded for a five-year period, she adds, “gives you time to expand and really tackle some of the major problems in astrophysics, rather than doing incremental research.”

It also allowed her access to facilities: “In my case, it was access to world-leading supercomputers. And without the ERC grant this would have been difficult.”

“Real progress in research is made when researchers can tackle big important questions," says Prof David Baulcombe, of the Department of Plant Sciences, the recipient of two ERC grants. "The ERC programme invites researchers to submit ambitious, blue-skies, imaginative proposals. There aren’t many others sources of funding that allow one to do that sort a thing.”

Dr Christos Lynteris, of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), is the recipient of an ERC Starting Grant for his project “Visual representations of the third plague pandemic.

“An ERC is a unique opportunity," he says: “it fosters interdisciplinary work. It also fosters analytical tools and the creation of new methods.”

“It offers a great opportunity to work with other people, over a period of 5 years, which is something very unusual, and with quite a liberal framework, so you are able to change and shift your questions, to reformulate them. For me, it means freedom, above everything.”

For Prof. Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, it is the “ERC ethos” and its “emphasis on taking things in new directions” that has made all the difference.

The ERC values an innovative, risk-taking approach “in a way that conventional grant-funding schemes don’t –they usually want to see that slow build rather than the risky step into the unknown.”

Prof. Simon Goldhill, Director of CRASSH, was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for his project “Bible and Antiquity in 19th Century Culture”. It has given him “the unique opportunity to do a genuinely interdisciplinary collaborative project with the time and space it takes to make such interdisciplinarity work.”

“Most importantly,” he adds, “the financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world, and Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.”

The sentiment is echoed by Prof. Ruth Cameron, of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. The impact of an ERC grant for her project “3D Engineered Environments for Regenerative Medicine” has, she says, “exceeded expectations”.


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