Wednesday, January 28, 2015

ERC Starting Grants - What about biodiversity research?

The European Research Council (ERC) has selected 287 scientists in its sixth Starting Grant competition, which is the last one under the EU's Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7). They are awarded nearly €400 Million, with grants being worth up to €2 million each. This call attracted 3,373 applications, about a third of those (1037) in the category life sciences. Of the latter 124 were awarded a grant. Not bad also given that this (12%) is above the general success rate of ~10%. The other two categories are social sciences and physical sciences/engineering.

The categories are subdivided following the ERC panel structure and here are the nine panels for the life sciences:
  • Molecular & Structural Biology & Biochemistry
  • Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics & Systems Biology
  • Cellular and Developmental Biology
  • Physiology, Pathophysiology & Endocrinology
  • Neurosciences & Neural Disorders
  • Immunity & Infection
  • Diagnostic Tools, Therapies & Public Health
  • Evolutionary, Population & Environmental Biology
  • Applied Life Sciences & Non-Medical Biotechnology
It doesn't take an expert to see that the system is skewed towards medical research and biotechnology. Consequently one will not find any grant awarded to a project with a focus on biodiversity not even among the 11 projects of the only panel (LS8) one might be able to find this kind of research. 

What does that tell us? Well, one could argue that no such project was actually among the submissions. Wrong. I know that some of my young European colleagues have submitted proposals and I was a reviewer on another one that clearly fit the bill and from my point of view was actually brilliant. I shouldn't be surprised as I am sitting in North America where the trend leading away from basic research started. The majority of governmental funding now goes into research that can be directly applied in industry or health care. DNA Barcoding luckily falls into some of those categories and we were fortunate enough that a few years ago some governmental funding partners (federal and provincial) were willing to take a risk. However, for others things are often quite different. Just ask some of my Canadian colleagues how comparatively easy it is to get research council funding once you have a partner in industry. There are specific programs that have no limiting deadlines and decisions are made swiftly within 4-6 weeks. Now that is different from my experience with e.g. the German Science Foundation were it could took a year or longer for a decision. I believe it takes about 9 months for the ERC starting grant decision.

The EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Carlos Moedas said: To create tomorrow’s innovation and growth, cutting-edge research is a must. With its Starting Grants, the European Research Council nurtures the next generation of excellent scientists allowing them to follow their scientific curiosity and take risks. To be at the forefront, Europe needs this gutsy mindset, and to invest in young talent.

Obviously only a carefully selected subset of researchers is allowed to follow their curiosity as long as the results are immediately and directly applicable to industry or health care. Where is the risk in that? Talking about an opportunity to take risks in the context of this ERC program is actually a slap in the face of colleagues that do basic research as they are largely left out. What concerns me most is the fact this this particular program is intended to support young researchers at the beginning of their career. Europe is clearly setting the course in the wrong direction. 

I used to be very proud of my European heritage and the fact that countries such as my home Germany were traditionally strong in basic research and everything related to natural history and biodiversity. Nine years ago when I left Europe I already saw signs that things were taking a turn for the worst and here we are - the place where biodiversity science originated is steering its brightest young minds away from it. Well done, EU!

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, this skewed approach to funding is not unique to the EU