Dr. Nowotny: ERC is waiting for fundamental projects
Although across Europe the European Research Council (ERC) grants are considered to be very difficult to obtain, it is worth considering what can be done so that Polish scientists win more of them. Problems can be twofold, both the quality and the number of applications, believes Dr. Marcin Nowotny, head of the Protein Structure Laboratory of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw and the winner of the "starting grant".
The scientist emphasised that among submitted projects there aren’t any of fundamental importance, aimed at obtaining original, brand-new results. Poland does not promote a situation where a relatively young people would start their own independent research groups.
According to dr. Nowotny, few Polish projects apply for funding from the ERC. The success rate does not differ significantly from the European average, but in the last year, the British received 150 such grants, and the Poles only 2. The second issue is that ERC expects fundamental projects. It can not be additional research, repeating already obtained results and adding detail to an existing system, but the search for completely new information.
Only about 15 percent ERC grant applications are successful. Application is a two-step process. In November, the application is submitted in writing. The selection is based on five anonymous written reviews. In February or March the applicant is informed whether the application has been qualified to the second stage; about 30 percent applications qualify. The second stage is an interview before the panel of several top-class European researchers.
"Each applicant has 10 minutes to present the main objectives of the project (the presentation) and then 15 minutes for questions and answers. Difficult and substantial questions are asked. The panelists, who interview the candidate, ask about weaknesses of the project, the problems that the reviewers have indicated. Approximately six weeks later the applicant receives the final decision. Our positive results were published in August" - said Dr. Nowotny.
According to the grant winner, there are also deeper reasons why the Polish scientists so rarely obtain funds from this source. Dr. Nowotny explained that there are two categories of ERC grants. Starting Grants are intended for persons within 12 years post-doctorate, at the beginning of building an independent career and running their own lab, and Advanced Grants at the super-high level are awarded to scientists with a great reputation and stable professional situation.
"There aren’t many Starting Grants in Poland. One of the reasons is that we do not promote a situation in which relatively young people start their own research groups. It is expected that such young person first proves his value, works for many years under his supervisor, and only then he has a chance for independence, very often when the person has already lost motivation to conduct risky but potentially fruitful new research" - said the molecular biologist.
The last problem is the formal and substantive preparation of applications. According to the scientist, writing such applications requires some help. "Our institute has an amazing grant department, which helps us with formal aspects. I do not know whether other institutions have similar departments, but it is crucial for such application to succeed" - emphasized the scholar.
According to Dr. Nowotny, ERC grants are probably the best grants currently in Europe, significant in terms of finance and prestige. They are also highly flexible, allowing to adjust spending to current needs.
The overall objective of a project conducted at the Protein Structure Laboratory of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw is to expand knowledge about the DNA repair mechanisms. This is a key process not only in cognitive terms, but also because in humans disorders of these mechanisms can lead to the formation of tumours. More on this in PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland here.
The project received EUR 1.5 million for 5 years. The grant funds necessary elements in the research process: from salaries of all employees in the project to equipment, both sophisticated and expensive devices and minor, routine equipment, as well as research materials, reagents, services, such as DNA sequencing, which are contracted to outside companies.
ERC grants discussion was initiated by the Foundation for Polish Science (Fundacja na rzecz Nauki Polskiej, FNP), which supports the winners of "starting grants" by providing them with additional subsidies for research projects in Poland.
"ERC grant follows the researcher. This means that if I decided to change the institution in which I work, I would take the grant with me. This makes a person with such a grant attractive on the labour market, and other institutions often offer to employ him. One of the ideas behind the programme +Ideas for Poland+ is to keep ERC winners in Poland. And it works" - says the winner of the additional FNP subsidy.
The subsidy amounts to PLN 100 thousand and FNP also accounts for those funds in a very flexible manner. "I obviously had to declare what I would spend the money on, but such is the nature of science that the study can dynamically change, and our needs can change. If we get an exciting result that requires purchasing additional reagents or additional hardware, is a very valuable thing to have such additional funds we can use. The money also can be spent on reagents, smaller devices. This is very convenient" - concluded the researcher.
More information in the FNP report.
PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Karolina Olszewska