Funding models: High risk, high gain

The European Research Council was established in 2007 with a seven-year budget of €7.5 billion under the EU's 7th Framework Programme (FP7). The ERC funds investigator-initiated grants to applicants from any EU member state and in 2013 expects to award €1.8 billion ($2.3 billion), with 39% of its budget directed to the life sciences.

Applications are reviewed by 10-15 member panels in nine areas: immunity and infection; molecular and structural biology and biochemistry; genetics, genomics, bioinformatics and systems biology; cellular and developmental biology; physiology, pathophysiology and endocrinology; neurosciences and neural disorders; diagnostic tools, therapies and public health; evolutionary population and environmental biology; and applied life sciences and biotechnology.

Panelists score each application from 1 to 4 on the research proposal itself, and the suitability of the investigator to carry out the work.

Research proposals are judged on the extent to which they address important challenges, are novel and are "high risk/high gain." They also are judged on the feasibility of the approach, the appropriateness and novelty of the methodology and the justification of timeline and resources.

Investigators are judged on past accomplishments and "evidence of their creative independent thinking."

The review has two steps. First, the full panel scores a portion of each application, which includes a five-page synopsis of the research proposal and the investigator's track record and CV, then ranks the applications. Up to three times the number of applications that are expected to be funded move on to a second round.

In the second step, about four panel members and two to four external reviewers examine and score the full application, including a 15-page research proposal, which is then discussed and ranked by the full panel.

There are no quotas by country. Most ERC grants are distributed to recipients in countries with a strong existing science infrastructure, including the U.K., France and Germany.

In Horizon 2020, the European funding framework for 2014-20, the ERC budget will increase 77% to €13.2 billion ($16.5 billion).

- Chris Cain