This week I was in Brussels in my capacity as a Scientific Council Member of the European Research Council. One of the roles we are all expected to fulfil from time to time is as observer of the various panels that make decisions on grants. There are 25 panels across three domains (Physical and Engineering Sciences, Life Sciences and Social Sciences and Humanities, always referred to as PE, LS and SH domains), and three stages of grants: Starter, Consolidator and Advanced. Each panel meets twice, first for shortlisting and a few months later for final decision after receipt of referee reports on the full shortlisted grants. Additionally there are separate calls for Proof of Concept grants and now the recently reintroduced Synergy grants. This all represents a huge amount of work involving a large number of experts from right across Europe, supported by a highly professional team of Commission employees.
This week I attended Step 2 (that is the final decision-making stage) of the Advanced Grants, spending time observing three panels from the PE domain and two from SH. Whereas for Starter and Consolidator grant applications, applicants are called for interview at Step 2, this is not the case for Advanced Grants. So what I observed was simply panel discussions. I have now written up my notes and shared them with other Scientific Council members. This Scientific Council oversight is an important part of our role and also allows us to check that we are happy with the instructions panels receive; that we know how the process is working and where it may need some additional tweaks or oversight; and that we are confident that the panels are operating effectively. It also makes it easier for us to discuss any concerns the supporting teams may have. In due course any worries that people have about particular panel members’ contributions will also be considered centrally.
That introduction is to illustrate some of the reasons that I am so concerned about the potential loss of access to funding for UK researchers post-Brexit. There is the obvious loss of money. Easy, some people say, the Government will replace the existing scheme with a set of personal fellowships to be held in the UK. Problem solved. Except that such a programme, welcome though it might be in purely cash terms, would not and could not mimic what the ERC offers. If you sit on an appointment or promotion panel, if the applicant is holding (or possibly, has held) an ERC grant at any level, it is noted with respect. A holder of a straight UK Research Council grant will get a tick for the cash, the proof that the applicant can successfully write a research grant, but the respect afforded – in my experience – is significantly less.
And that is because the competition across the whole of Europe, with a success rate of somewhat better than 10% in a typical round but usually less than 15%, is incredibly stiff (basic statistics on this can be found here). The success rate may be similar for UK Research Councils, the competition is undoubtedly fierce here, but the ERC draws from a much larger pool of applicants and there are significant restrictions imposed on submitting a new proposal if an earlier one is deemed to have been below a certain threshold, thereby pushing up the standard of those who can apply each round. As was said to me by a member of shadow UKRI’s workforce recently, there is huge prestige associated with winning an ERC grant. Nevertheless the UK is a very successful country in winning such grants: its success rate is not the highest of all, but the total number of grants awarded has been for most rounds (although in the last announced round Germany had overtaken the UK). In terms of success rate – as opposed to numbers – Israel and Switzerland, both associated countries, tend to do best. The ERC Executive Agency provides the Scientific Council with meticulous data after each round covering information about gender, country and so on for both applications and success rates at the two steps.
So the ERC schemes provide a highly prestigious scheme in which the UK does well. That in itself would be cause enough to mourn its loss to the UK – and I’m sure many scientists are looking ahead with huge anxiety as our access looks likely to be curtailed by the political process, although personally I’m not giving up hope yet. But, there are other less obvious reasons why I think the ERC process is so striking. I’m not saying panels will always get things right; comparing the apples and pears of different proposals is always going to contain a subjective element. But I am not aware of any UK Research Council that goes to the lengths of scrutiny that the ERC does.
As I said, Scientific Council members drop in on panels – unannounced and often unrecognized as I discovered to my dismay, when a panel member kindly told me I was in the wrong room. I did wonder whether, had I been a man this person would have been so swift to rush to judgement, but I will never know whether this was a crude stereotyping or someone trying to be genuinely helpful. Is there any UK Research Council that expects the same of its Council members? I am sure that UK grant panels now do get mandatory unconscious bias training, but do Chairs get additional wide-ranging briefings as ERC chairs do? I certainly haven’t in the past when serving as a chair in the UK. Is data analysed carefully after every round to see whether gender bias is still present despite the training video? Is there a group that considers all aspects of gender balance (I sit on the ERC’s Gender Balance Working Group) – in panel make up as well as in the statistics of applications and grants; or the geographical distribution of panel members? Or the years post PhD of successful applicants….and so on. How carefully is panel composition scrutinised within the UK? And are people blacklisted if they don’t contribute sufficiently, write their reports on time or otherwise fail to come up to scratch?
It seems to me that the rigorous processes that the ERC has created in its relatively short (10 years old last year) existence are less visible in the UK system. And I’m sure this rigour does help strengthen the assessment process. We have all received referees’ comments that make us furious because of their inaccuracy and (at least perceived) ignorance, but for some UK Research Councils at least it is much harder for a panel member to throw a report that appears to be out of line out of consideration. ERC panel members are able, indeed absolutely expected, to use their own judgement in reaching a conclusion and if that includes throwing out a dodgy report, so be it.
If and when we lose access to the ERC I therefore believe we will lose far more than just the cash, important though that obviously is. I hope the UK scientific leadership, in UKRI and Government, will recognize what is at stake if a deal cannot be reached that permits us to continue to apply for ERC funding. And that is all before we consider the loss of researchers who choose to move to countries where such access is still available, to the further detriment of the science done here. I also know how much the ERC itself values the science done on these shores and their own recognition that our departure from the grant competition will not improve the excellence their funding can deliver, the excellence that sits four-squarely at the core of everything they do.