Science is essentially international – how the ERC promotes scientific cooperation

Cover image of Science is essentially international – how the ERC promotes scientific cooperation

The European Research Council has come a long way in terms of global outreach since its launch fifteen years ago, when it was set up to put Europe on the map in terms of scientific excellence. ERC funding, offering substantial and attractive grants to give top talent the freedom and flexibility to follow their scientific curiosity, quickly became highly coveted.

From our earliest days, the funding opportunities were promoted, not only within Europe, but also globally. We see a fairly good number of grantees of non-European nationality and some even moving to Europe with the ERC grant.

Let me highlight a development of late, meant to foster internationalisation further. Whilst the ERC’s trademark is funding for individual researchers, one of our schemes, the ERC Synergy Grant, gathers two to four principal investigators to address jointly a truly complex scientific problem. In 2019, the ERC Scientific Council decided to open this scheme also to researchers hosted in institutions outside Europe (no more than one per project). Interestingly, we can already observe that this is paying off. By now, a total of 28 Synergy grantees are based outside Europe. Sometimes small tweaks to our schemes can have noticeable impact to further global collaborations.

When it comes to the ERC-funded teams, its members tend to be very international. To promote this further, international agreements with funding agencies and science ministries around the world were signed.

The history of these initiatives is one very much intertwined with the growth of research and innovation systems in emerging economies, and increasingly interlinked global scientific communities.

The idea to encourage more researchers from outside the European Research Area (ERA) to temporarily join teams led by ERC grantees in Europe was formed under the auspices of the ERC President at the time, Helga Nowotny. The logic being that first-hand experience in an ERC-funded team would spread the word about ERC funding, boost applications from overseas researchers and enhance scientific cooperation worldwide. These initiatives became known as implementing arrangements - open to early-career researchers of any age and discipline supported by a non-European funding agency.

An Internationalisation Working Group was also established within the ERC’s Scientific Council early on. What’s more, a worldwide awareness raising campaign, “ERC goes global”, was led by the then ERC Secretary General Donald Dingell as part of the global outreach strategy to explain the goals and workings of the ERC to researchers, universities, research councils and science ministries worldwide. During this time, informal discussions began with overseas counterparts. Talks between the ERC and the then Director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), Subra Suresh, became instrumental in the development and the architecture of the very first implementing arrangement with NSF in 2012.

By the time the European Commissioner Carlos Moedas had announced the Commission’s strategic priorities –“Open innovation, Open science and Open to the world” a new ERC President, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, was at the helm of the ERC in 2014 and international efforts had progressed to launching the “ERC - Open to the World” campaign targeting researchers worldwide. Thanks to the new ERC President’s professional and personal links with researchers at Keio University and prior meetings with the President of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Dr Yuichiro Anzai, an implementing arrangement with the JSPS facilitating young Japanese researchers to join ERC teams came about. And a string of such initiatives were to follow.

By now, 17 arrangements have been signed spanning all regions of the world - from North America to Asia, from Africa to Latin America and Australia - in the spirit of enhancing scientific cooperation between scientists, encouraging non-ERA researchers to work in ERC teams in similar areas of scientific pursuit.

Both ERC grantees and visiting researchers welcome the advantages brought about by the circulation of knowledge and ideas enabling substantial advances at the frontiers of knowledge, which often lead to new lines of enquiry, new methods and techniques and unconventional approaches.

What’s more, these collaborations can also in some way help to encourage scientific freedom globally.

As recently as September, Maria Leptin, the current ERC President, welcomed a new initiative with Thailand and underlined that it is“fully in line with the ERC’s openness to the world”, adding that “excellent science is intrinsically international, encouraging scientific exchange across continents can only benefit us all”.

So, what’s the ERC’s role more practically when it comes to these initiatives? We simply help match ERC grantees interested in hosting non-ERA researchers with those selected in the partner country. We do not intervene in the communication between interested grantees and potential visitors, and the selection is carried out entirely by our counterpart. Subsistence costs on a per diem basis are provided through the ERC grant. Salaries, travel, health insurance and living expenses are all financed by the overseas funding agency in question. Visiting researchers are welcomed into ERC research teams for the duration of their visit – which may be a short few months stays or maximum a full year.

The arrangements vary considerable in the number of visiting researchers by country. The Brazilian National Council of State Funding Agencies, for example, has a high level of participation - 100 Brazilian researchers have visited ERC teams since the launch of the initiative 2016. An early agreement, that with the Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, has seen 186 Korean visiting researchers. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, information sessions for researchers globally with grantees from overseas providing practical tips to participants have moved online. Another effect of the pandemic was that several calls for visiting researchers were delayed due to limitations on travel and mobility. We hope these will resume with renewed enthusiasm as restrictions continue to ease. Given the variations in numbers of visiting researchers, there are ongoing discussions on how to make these agreements better known. One crucial factor for the level of success is the amount of promotion at the local level. In addition, we have been collaborating with the ERC’s partners, notably EURAXESS Worldwide - the EU’s information platform for researchers exploring careers in Europe - to raise awareness about these initiatives.

In its first fifteen years, the ERC’s funding schemes have gained wide international recognition. Given the great benefits brought about by collaboration between ERC grantees and visiting researchers, we hope to see the implementing arrangements garner further attention and to have more visiting researchers going forward. Science is essentially international and this will remain part of the ERC’s ethos. 

José Labastida 

Head of Unit, Support to the Scientific Council