European Union's leading basic research funding agency assesses its impact
The European Research Council (ERC), which awards some of the most sought-after grants for basic research, has announced that it will begin monitoring the outcomes of the research projects that it has commissioned. “We push both scientists and grant-application reviewers to take a certain risk, so it is important to know that they are actually taking risks — and that we are selecting the right projects,” stated Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the ERC President.
The ERC is the first pan-European funding body for frontier research, and was established in 2007 under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research. After funding nearly 6,000 projects, the ERC resolved to understand the impact of the research it has supported and conducted a pilot evaluation of the first 199 completed projects. The idea was to study their impact without any thematic constraints. The focus was on grading the success of each of the projects based on the kind of impact it has had on the global economy and how it has benefitted society. Therefore, instead of basing their analyses on bibliometrics, the evaluators were instructed to use their expertise to appraise the projects’ success.
According to the press release by the ERC, the evaluators found that more than 70% of ERC-funded projects have already made scientific breakthroughs; about 25% have made contributions that are incremental; and 4% had no appreciable scientific output. The report also specifies some other observations, for instance, the ERC majorly funds “high-risk/high-gain” projects, and a large share of the projects are interdisciplinary. The report concludes that the ERC “contributes significantly to the economy and society at large.” This exercise cost the ERC €200,000 (US$220,000), which is a minor percentage of the ERC’s total budget of €13.1 billion.
This initiative by the ERC has been appreciated by the scientific community since it may be the first agency that funds basic research to analyze its own performance. Erik Arnold, chair of Technopolis, a European research and innovation consultancy headquartered in Brighton, UK, said, “Virtually no basic research funding agency tries retrospectively to analyse its own performance and impacts. It would be nice if the ERC effort would inspire others to do so.”
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