An external perspective on the recent exercise to map ERC frontier research projects, from information science experts Cassidy R. Sugimoto and Vincent Larivière.
A defining feature of the European Research Council (ERC) funding programs are that they are investigator-driven, rather than politically-derived. A recent interview with ERC President Maria Leptin referred to the model as being “independent, excellent and ruthlessly bottom-up”. In this interview, Leptin argued that the agility and autonomy of ERC funding allowed researchers to pivot quickly during the pandemic. This reflects the mission of the ERC: “to make the European research base more prepared to respond to the needs of a knowledge-based society and provide Europe with the capabilities in frontier research necessary to meet global challenges.”
An enduring question in science policy is whether scientific freedom comes at a cost to social benefits. An enduring question in science policy is whether scientific freedom comes at a cost to social benefits. That is, whether allowing researchers to drive the agenda will yield results of the greatest benefit to society. This question was at the heart of the analyses of the “Science behind the Projects” working group, chaired by ERC Scientific Council member Prof. Dirk Inze. The working group created a three- dimensional classification consisting of about 900 terms, reflecting disciplines, methods, and topics addressed by the more than 6700 research projects funded by the ERC between 2014 and 2020. They utilized this classification to produce several “factsheets”. These factsheets demonstrate that the ERC is encouraging innovation both in the way it funds science and how it reports on the outcomes of this funding. This is an exemplary practice of funding transparency that other agencies would do well to replicate.
the ERC is encouraging innovation both in the way it funds science and how it reports on the outcomes of this funding
The factsheets shed light on data relevant to several of the other ERC working groups—from Gender and Diversity Issues to Widening European Participation. For example, the ERC Gender Equality Plan called for gender balance and awareness at all levels of the ERC funding process. Despite general advances towards equity, there remain sizeable differences across panels: while the social world, diversity, population (52% women) and cultures and cultural production panels (51% women) are near parity, no panels in physical sciences and engineering or life sciences have more than 37% women grantees. Particularly low percentages of women grantees are observed in mathematics (13%) and in computer science and informatics (16%), and these rates are lower than what would be expected given the proportion of women authors in Europe. One potential space for intervention are Synergy Grants, which funds collaborative proposals from more than one investigator. These grants yields a higher percentage of cross-domain projects, particularly in the social sciences and Humanities, yet only 19% of Synergy grantees are women. Diversification in this area could lead both to increased interdisciplinarity and innovation.
One potential space for intervention are Synergy Grants. Diversification in this area could lead both to increased interdisciplinarity and innovation.
Interventions could also be made towards deconcentrating the funding portfolio across countries and institutions. For example, 40% of all social science and humanities projects are located either in the UK or the Netherlands. At the institutional level, the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique demonstrates the highest concentration, appearing among the top five most-funded institutions in 19 of the 25 panels. Max Planck also has a strong number of projects—appearing among the most funded in 15 of the 25 panels and having more projects in these panels alone than ten EU member states combined. Of course, those numbers are a function of the size of those institutions—which federate a sizeable percentage of the research activities of those countries—but exemplify strong tendencies towards concentration.
Interventions could also be made towards deconcentrating the funding portfolio across countries and institutions.
The ERC is running an extremely selective program, with only 6707 projects funded from 54,000 applications. It is notable, therefore, that the ratio between submission and acceptance within each panel is close to one, suggesting that the portfolio is truly investigator-led. However, every selection decision is a policy decision: to maximize for excellence and social benefit, agencies must provide transparency not only on what is funded, but what (and who) is not.
to maximize for excellence and social benefit, agencies must provide transparency not only on what is funded, but what (and who) is not.
There are tremendous opportunities for future study as the “Mapping ERC Frontier Research” continues to develop and refine their classification and portfolio analyses. In a recent editorial on the mapping exercise, several claims are made: including that “the ERC is already massively funding research relevant to every major policy area” and that “if a similar mapping exercise was carried out on agenda-driven research, it would lead to more of a clustering of certain areas.” These statements represent testable hypotheses, with wide-ranging interests for other funding agencies across the world and implications for the scientific community. We applaud the ERC for their work in this area and hope that they continue to push the frontiers of science funding analysis in order to accelerate science and, thereby, the well-being of society.
About the experts
Dr. Cassidy R. Sugimoto is Professor and Tom and Marie Patton School Chair in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA. Her research examines the formal and informal ways in which knowledge is produced, disseminated, consumed, and supported, with an emphasis on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sugimoto was a professor of Informatics in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington from 2010-2021 and served as the Program Director for the Science of Science and Innovation Policy program at the USA’s National Science Foundation from 2018-2020. She has received the Indiana University Trustees Teaching award (2014), a national service award from the Association for Information Science and Technology (2009), and a Bicentennial Award for service from Indiana University (2020). She holds a bachelor’s in Music Performance, a master’s in Library Science, and a doctoral degree in Information and Library Science all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Vincent Larivière holds the Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication at the Université de Montréal in Canada, where he is professor of information science and associate vice-president (planning and communications). He is also scientific director of the Érudit journal platform, associate scientific director of the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies (OST) and regular member of the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST). His research focuses on science policy, scholarly publishing, and diversity and equity in science. He is a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada, and has been nominated for the Prix du Québec - relève scientifique. He holds a B.A. in Science, Technology and Society (UQAM), an M.A. in history of science (UQAM) and a Ph.D. in information science (McGill).