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A European success story

The European Research Council (ERC) is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week. Some 14 researchers at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine have benefited so far from its funding – in some cases more than once.

When the EU Commission founded the ERC in 2007, the new agency not only promised generous funding for basic research, it also committed itself to basing the selection process on a single criterion – scientific excellence. The ERC has kept its word. Researchers who receive an ERC grant are not constrained by any thematic or strategic guidelines. As pioneers, they decide themselves which areas are worth focusing on and receive enough funding to pursue their ideas for several years – even if the project initially seems risky.

“The ERC was a quantum leap for research funding in Europe. Here it’s not about consortia, but about a good idea and its implementation,” says Thomas Willnow. He won an ERC Advanced Grant in 2013 and is one of 14 researchers at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine who have been awarded the highly sought-after funding. The MDC thus ranks 17th out of 128 German research institutions.

ERC funding is open to scientists of any age. ERC Starting Grants provide young talented researchers with the resources needed to set up their own laboratory for the first time and do independent work. An ERC grant made it possible for Klaus Rajewsky, despite his advanced age, to return to Germany from Harvard University and continue his research at the Max Delbrück Center.

In the last ten years, the ERC has funded more than 7,000 researchers across Europe. In 2015 it nevertheless almost fell victim to cost-cutting measures. There had been plans to reduce the Horizon 2020 program’s budget by €2.7 billion, €221 million of which was slated to be cut from the ERC. There was widespread protest, and the spending cuts were averted – for the time being. “We strongly urge policymakers in all EU member states and EU institutions to provide unconditional support for the ERC,” demands EU-LIFE, an alliance of 13 biomedical research institutes across Europe, to which the MDC also belongs. “This includes increasing the budget in the next framework program (FP9) and strengthening the ERC principles of scientific excellence and independence.”

Statements by MDC-scientists:

Thomas Jentsch, ERC Advanced Grant 2011:
“The ERC grant allowed us to complete the highly complex and innovative project of identifying a key ion channel many labs had been trying, and failing, to find for over 20 years. It was a lengthy and expensive endeavor with uncertain outcome and the inherent risk that we, too, might be unsuccessful or beaten to the punch by another group. The generous ERC grant and relatively long five-year funding period have been essential for our success.  The key factor, however, was ERC’s philosophy of promoting truly innovative high risk/high gain projects, which most other research funding agencies tend to shy away from.”

Klaus Rajewsky, ERC Advanced Grant 2010:
“The ERC Advanced Grant enabled my move from Harvard to the MDC in Berlin at an advanced age, by providing the perspective of long-term productivity. A truly unique opportunity!“

Gaetano Gargiulo, ERC Starting Grant 2016:
“The ERC grant provides us with all the necessary resources to run our project. As such, it enables me to dedicate most of my time to our scientific endeavor. Time is key in a young lab. One of the most valuable aspect is that I can use these resources to train people in a leading biomedical institution with the highest scientific standards one can think of. This is an asset that extends beyond the boundaries of this project. It is a win-win scenario.”

Zsuzsanna Izsvák, ERC Advanced Grant 2011:
“The ERC grant provided me with an enormous opportunity. It helped me to establish my own lab at the MDC. It helped me to deal with hierarchy by simply supporting scientific excellence. It enhanced the visibility of my research. I started getting attention worldwide, so that I was able to grow and to start excellent collaborations. I could get into many consortia, and was privileged to supervise plenty of students. During these intense years, I filed several patent applications. Our invention, the Sleeping Beauty system, is now at the clinic, and it happened in the shortest time of the history of gene therapy vectors. ERC also allowed me to brainstorm and go after crazy ideas. Of course, every project needs some solid ground, but one could have a lot of freedom.“

Gary Lewin, ERC Advanced Grant 2011 und ERC Proof-Of-Concept Grant 2016:
“My ERC grant enabled me to do experiments that would not have been fundable from other sources. I wanted go to Africa and work on lots of interesting and unusual species and do experiments that others might consider crazy. The ERC Grant allows us to focus on research topics that many do not think biomedically important, because the link between naked mole-rat physiology and human disease is not obvious. However, we are convinced that we can gain fundamental insights into physiology that can actually help us understand human disease. However, it is not a straight line, a much more ‘blue skies’ route than one would normally take.”

Further information:

Francesca Spagnoli on ERC funding: Ideas, not consortia (short interview)
Thomas Willnow on ERC funding: Funding for risky projects (short interview)
EU-LIFE Statement
List of MDC scientists with ERC Grants
ERC week

source: Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)

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