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EMBO Members reflect on ten years ERC



Heidelberg, 1 August 2017 – The creation of the European Research Council (ERC), which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, was a unique success for the European scientific community – a tale of collective campaigning for EU funding of basic research judged exclusively on merit. EMBO, together with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) and European Life Sciences Organization (ELSO), were the main drivers behind the initial lobbying, which occurred at a time when more money was being spent per cow than per scientist in the EU.


Highly competitive from the outset


From the first call, offering generous Starting Grants for up to five years for early-career researchers to establish or consolidate their labs, it was clear that the ERC was addressing a huge need in the community. There simply was no other source of large-scale, long-term support for young researchers wanting to try something ambitious, and the ERC was deluged with applications. Those candidates surviving the initial triage faced a very tough interview, which was definitely not for the faint-hearted. Everyone knew they were competing against the best in Europe and that the interview panels were not afraid to ask some very challenging questions. In the end, 299 grants were awarded – a 3.4% success rate.


Analysis of the career trajectories of the first recipients indicates that the ERC excellence criteria were suitably stringent. While the physical sciences boasted a Nobel Laureate within three years (the University of Manchester’s Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2010 for his work on graphene), life sciences alumni include eleven scientists who’ve since been elected as EMBO Members. Six of them took a trip down memory lane to describe what the award of one of those first ERC grants did for their careers.


Developing ambitious ideas


Claire Rougeulle of Paris Diderot University was about to start her own group working onX-inactivation, and thinks that the award of her ERC grant was instrumental in allowing her to become independent. “The level of funding allowed me to develop ambitious ideas, in a timeframe compatible with challenging projects,” she says, adding that “it was thanks to the ERC that I could recruit most of my lab members.” She also had an unexpected treat: “As it was the first ERC grant round, it attracted much attention – I ended up being invited to lunch with the French President and his wife!”


The visibility and prestige of the grants were appreciated by Yohanns Bellaiche and Dirk Schübeler, who both cite the award as having helped them recruit great lab members with the lure of well-funded, high impact research. Yohanns, of the Curie Institute, used it to establish his team in the field of tissue morphogenesis: “We had to depart from our expertise in the subcellular dynamics of one cell to the collective dynamics of up to several thousands of cells,” he says. The switch also demanded a multidisciplinary approach using biological and novel physical methodology “to understand how mechanical forces are produced within tissues, and how they modulate tissue shapes,” Yohanns recalls.


For Dirk, at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, the award meant a change of direction to study how DNA methylation and chromatin changes were involved in stem cell differentiation and cell identity. “Our proposal involved expensive epigenetics experiments, so generous funding was essential,” he says.


Duncan Odom, of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, was also grateful for the injection of money: “I proposed to do large-scale transcriptional regulatory evolution, and to investigate what role genetic sequence plays in directing transcription and transcriptional regulation,” he says. And the grant set the future direction of Duncan’s lab: “The five years of funding resulted in major discoveries regarding the rate and extent of changes during evolution, and fundamentally shaped our ongoing research.”


Addressing new and risky questions


For René Ketting, of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz, the financial freedom the grant offered was immensely liberating: “The ERC grant allowed me to try novel things. I was set to look for mechanistic links between small RNAs and chromatin changes in zebrafish.” The project was ultimately unsuccessful (probably, René thinks, because there are no such links), but he sees the ERC’s willingness to fund him as a major advantage of the scheme: “What I proposed was clearly high-risk, but even though I didn’t find what I was looking for, it helped spur many different projects that are still fuelling my lab.”


René wasn’t the only one asking the ERC to take a chance. University of Milan’s Maria Rescigno proposed an idea that was somewhat adventurous ten years ago: to investigate the link between dendritic cells and the gut microbiota. “I would never have expected this was going to be one of the hottest topics in science,” she says.


As of 2017, the ERC has awarded grants totalling more than €12 billion to over 7,000 projects, and remains hugely influential. As René Ketting says, “the ERC’s main purpose was to stimulate basic research by allowing talented people to try risky approaches. They are still very well suited for that.” Maria Rescigno’s view is even simpler: “The ERC changed my life,” she says.


Interviews and text by Kathy Weston.