Insider view: How the ERC mapped science frontiers

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In 2014 the ERC carried out a pilot exercise on the 4,400 research projects funded by the ERC during the European Union’s (EU’s) Seventh Framework Programme - which took place from 2007 to 2013. Already by 2013 the power of the ERC’s funding model to produce research that was useful to address current concerns had become evident, and the ERC worked to create a way to sort and show what questions researchers were tackling. For that initial study, named “Science behind the Projects”, the scientific officers (staff members within the ERC who work with each individual ERC peer-review evaluation panel) used various fields’ specific classification systems to label and then sort the funded projects. Successful aspects from this proof of concept work were then retained for the current mapping exercise.

Each research project that the ERC funds is of course unique, but there was also a need to find a way to bring similar ‘pixels’ together. The classification system, which is common to the twenty-five evaluation panels and Synergy Grant panels that the ERC used during the Horizon 2020 funding period, attempted to identify elements that were similar or shared among the projects funded by these panels.

This tailor-made classification has about 900 terms, which aimed not to capture the uniqueness of each project, but rather to capture the core scientific elements of the projects, and sketch the ‘pictures’ they formed together.

The ERC’s scientific officers then tagged projects with relevant terms. As any given project can be examined from slightly different perspectives, generally each was labelled by two scientific officers. It is their expertise that makes the mapping of the ERC project portfolio different from many others. They added a valuable layer of structured information to each project, which allowed the ERC to explore the large funding portfolio and show its richness in a systematic and structure manner.

The outcome of this work can be seen in the recent “Mapping ERC Frontier Research” project factsheets. In addition, to identify projects that have the potential to contribute, or are already contributing to the EU’s target policy areas, the ERC’s scientific officers also tagged projects along fourteen of Horizon 2020’s priorities. Projects enhancing understanding in these areas were also considered as relevant, even if no application was anticipated. Part of their contribution is illustrated in “policy” factsheets on green, digital and health areas, which reflect three of the most recent policy aims of the European Commission, “A European Green Deal”, “A Europe fit for the digital age” and “EU4Health”.

Next steps

To explore the projects under Horizon Europe programme (the current funding round from 2021 to 2027), the ERC needs to look again at the 900 terms that at present form a central part of our methodology for data collection. The body of scientific knowledge changes all the time, especially on its frontiers. In certain fields, there have been massive changes. For instance, the field of artificial intelligence has moved very fast over the last six years. Therefore, the ERC will need to reflect this evolution in the current classification to better capture the amazing science that the ERC funds.