ERC conference: We can do better!

Why is the Nordic success rate, particularly that of Denmark and Norway, not as good as could be expected in the first rounds of calls from the European Research Council? And what can be done to improve the Nordic results? A report from the NordForsk seminar, held at the Scandic Sergel Plaza Hotel in Stockholm on 2 December 2008, is now available.
 ERC conference: We can do better!
Liisa Hakamies-Blomqvist, NordForsk Director, stressed the potential for mutual learning among the Nordic countries with respect to the ERC.
(Liisa Hakamies-Blomqvist‘s introduction)

Presenting the overall results from the ERC’s first calls, Peter Maassen judged that -relative to size, number of researchers and research investments, Finland is performing best, Norway weakest. (Peter Maassen‘s presentation)

- While we do believe we are good scientists here in the Nordic countries, the number of ERC grant winners does not reflect this, Jens Rostrup-Nielsen from the ERC Scientific Council pointed out. His diagnosis was clear: - It is a question of quality, information and support. (Jens Rostrup-Nielsen‘s presentation)

Having been head of one of the Starting Grant panel for Applied life sciences, biotechnology and bioengineering, professor Lars Walløe emphasised the importance of a well-written application that can communicate well with a panel consisting of scientists within different areas of expertise (not only the particular field of the applicant) as well as the need for practice and training in oral examination situations in order to handle the interview-process in the second round of the ERC selection process.

Representatives from the research councils of all the Nordic countries stressed the issue of support and presented their somewhat different practices and their plans for future support: Jan Corner-Walker (Denmark), Terje Emblem (Norway), Magnus Lyngdal Magnusson (Iceland), Riitta Mustonen (Finland), and Annette Moth Wiklund (Sweden).

As did representatives from the Universities of Iceland, Stockholm, Trondheim (NTNU), Helsinki and Aarhus: Jon Atli Benediktsson, Pia Bjeren Furstenbach, Astrid Lægreid, Sanna-Maija Miettinen, and Nina Smith.

While the research councils and universities focused greatly on the importance of practical aid and support for potential applicants, the researchers themselves, represented by 5 starting grant holders and 4 advanced grant holders, stressed the need for local moral support. Enthusiasm and backing from their institutes appeared paramount to the researchers, especially to the receivers of advanced grants.

Starting Grant holders:
Johan Elf
Taneli Kukkonen
Stefan Leutgeb
Erik Lindahl (presentation not available)
Tapio Lokki

Advcanced Grant holders:
Axel Brandenburg
Kristen Hastrup
Howard Jacobs
Villy Sundstrøm

See a presentation of the Grant Holding researchers‘ projects here.

Numerous speakers pointed out that structural issues have to be addressed in order to counter the serious gender imbalance in ERC applications. Structural changes in mentality might also be needed in the Nordic university systems in order to succeed better in the next rounds of ERC grants. One important question mentioned was whether traditional “Nordic modesty” is in fact getting in the way of success when Nordic scientists are confronted with competitors holding years of experience and practice in self-projection.

Even though the grant holders present at the Stockholm conference had not asked for nor received much support from their local institutions in their applications, it is highly likely that less confident contenders, given the right guidance, could be winners next time. And while one could easily choose to focus on the somewhat disappointing results from the first rounds, the researchers themselves were more confident on behalf of the Nordic countries.
- We should use this as a base for further success rather than whining about failure, said professor and Advanced Grant holder Howy Jacobs as a concluding remark to the panel debate. – There is large potential here. We can do better!

Download the report from the conference here.