From fledgling idea to European success story

23 February 2022

Isn’t it true that to appreciate the present and look to the future, one has to understand the past? That’s why it is timely to take a stroll down memory lane, as the European Research Council marks its fifteenth anniversary. After years of demands from the scientific community, the first pan-European funding organisation came to life in a joint European effort. This is the story of how the ERC went from an idea to a European success. 

Even two decades before the ERC’s launch, the scientific community in Europe had begun to make their voice heard, demanding the creation of a European Research Council. However, it was not until the early 2000s when a European Research Area sparked discussions between the worlds of science and politics that things really started moving. In the context of those debates, the need for an organisation like the ERC, backed by the EU, started to emerge. After independent Swedish research personalities, such as Prof. Dan Brändström and Michael Sohlman, set the ball rolling, the turning point came in 2002 during the Danish Council of the EU Presidency. The seeds were sown of what was to become the ERC. 
Gathering political support was challenging, but these Scandinavian efforts put the idea of an ERC firmly on the political agenda. By March 2004, EU leaders agreed on the need for a dedicated European funding scheme for excellent basic research. European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin (1999-2004) was instrumental, supporting the committed scientists who were in the lead. His policy focused on diversifying the European research instruments through the European Research Area, already consolidated in the Lisbon Treaty in 2000, and to recognise the excellence of individual researchers. 
Commissioner Janez Potočnik (2004-2010) and his successors built on this work since these early days. Between 2004 and 2006, the groundwork was laid to turn the ERC into a practical reality. A High-Level Expert Group, set up by the Commission, provided much of the rationale for the foundation of the ERC, including frontier research as its main target. Key figures who took part in the ERC’s pivotal early beginnings include visionary Commission official Dr William Cannell, as well as Lord Patten of Barnes (Chair of the first Identification Committee), Dr Achilleas Mitsos (then Director-General of DG Research), Jack Metthey (the first ERC Executive Agency Director), Robert-Jan Smits (later Director-General of DG Research & Innovation), and many others. The ERC became the flagship of the Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research.
The ERC’s governing body, the independent Scientific Council, met for the first time in late 2005, and the ERC was officially inaugurated on 27 to 28 February 2007 under the German Presidency of the Council of the EU. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel was present and said in her speech: “The ERC could become a Champion’s League for research and we have to accept that research needs autonomy and freedom“. Fifteen years later that prediction certainly rings true.
Today, the ERC’s yearly budget has grown to over €2 billion. In 2007, with an initially modest annual budget of €300 million, the ERC launched its very first Starting Grant competition. The demand for grants was overwhelming: over 9,000 applications were received. But the organisation stood the test.  
The first President of the ERC, the late Prof. Fotis Kafatos, steered the ERC skillfully and with great commitment through its challenging first phase. Prof. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was the first Secretary General, serving as a crucial link between the Scientific Council and the Commission, a role which Prof. Andreu Mas-Colell later took over, followed by Prof. Donald Dingwell until 2013. 
The ERC’s implementing arm had been part of the Commission from the start, but in 2009 it was transformed into the ERC Executive Agency. The following years saw the ERC grow in its scale of organisation and funding, which made it possible to fund thousands of excellent projects dreamed up by scientists and scholars around Europe.
After being a founding Vice-President, Prof. Helga Nowotny became President in 2010, successfully taking the ERC into its next phase. This year was also marked by a new milestone: Prof. Konstantin Novoselov, already ERC-funded since 2007, became the first grantee to receive the Nobel Prize. The next year, a dedicated task force reflected on the ERC’s future; its positive review confirmed the good  functioning of the ERC, and offered some recommendations. One of them was to streamline the ERC with a President based in Brussels from 2014 (a Secretary General was hence no longer needed). The ERC thrived under the dedicated leadership of Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon who took office in 2014 and served for seven years. Many individuals in the Scientific Council and in the Agency put their heart and soul into the ERC, such as Pablo Amor, Agency Director, and the late Dr Theodore Papazoglou, Head of Unit, to name but a few.
Over the last decade, some battles were fought and challenges were overcome. The ERC developed its activities further, from new international agreements with global counterparts to cooperation with organisations like the World Economic Forum, to celebrating more ERC-funded Nobel Prize winners and ground-breaking discoveries, not least the first image of a black hole.

What started as a fledgling idea has today - fifteen years later - become a mainstay on the European research landscape and has supported over 10,000 researchers and their teams across Europe. May the next years have many more highlights in store, now with Prof. Maria Leptin at the helm of the organisation. The ERC’s motto “by researcher, for researchers” continues to guide us into the future.