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ERC is Europe’s most prestigious research grant, supporting excellent researchers in carrying out ground-breaking, high-risk, high-gain, frontier research projects. When a researcher applies for an ERC grant – whether Starting, Consolidator or Advanced funding schemes – it is important to adjust the proposal to the unique ERC requirements. This can be done by thinking big, shifting the writing style, and ensuring that the idea is conveyed properly. In this post, we lay the foundations for the ERC grant, and discuss in greater detail its unique components.


Understanding the “Excellence” of an ERC Grant

The sole criterion for evaluating ERC applications is “Excellence”. But what is this “Excellence” made of? How can one measure “Excellence”? Can we assume that ERC reviewers evaluate “Excellence” using uniform standards? The reality is that the “Excellence” which ERC is looking for is rather elusive, and there are various ways for “measuring” it.


Simply put, the way to a successful ERC application is composed of two equally important elements:

  1. The researcher
  2. The research


Reviewers evaluate the two conjointly while always keeping in mind the ERC “Excellence” criterion. Though the above may come off pretty concise and straightforward, in reality the pathway to the ERC grant is paved with obstacles, numerous “urban legends” and various do’s and don’ts. Our experience helps unravel, debunk and solve some of these issues below.


Here are a few starters addressing some of the ERC “Excellence” aspects to consider when applying

Who is ‘ERC material’?

The Principle Investigator (PI) applying for ERC must have an outstanding CV and a remarkable scientific track record. This includes high impact publications in top journals. Clearly, the CV and track record are evaluated according to the applicant’s career stage. To further understand this subject, continue here. 


One of the many ERC “urban legends” tells that the PI should not apply to ERC without having at least one publication in Nature or Science. The truth is that the bigger picture is more important. This means that applicants who manage to demonstrate scientific leadership in their discipline, supported by well-cited publications in high-impact journals, may succeed even without publishing in Nature or Science. In this context, we recommend to also read about the issue of h-index in ERC. 


Think big

Since ERC is about expanding the scientific horizon, ERC expects projects to go above and beyond the state of the art and present “high risk, high gain” projects. In this sense, and when comparing ERC to other grants and funding schemes, it challenges the applicant to present a project proposal which dramatically expands the scope of research and innovation in his/her field. In many cases, applicants find this requirement counter-intuitive and to some extent unrealistic. This is largely due to the fact that they are accustomed to grants which expect feasibility, down-to-earth, low-risk and more modest proposals. This is why the process demands for a substantial shift in applicant’s state of mind. In this context, it is also important to understand more about how to present a hypothesis in ERC.


Balancing “High Risk” and Feasibility

The ERC assumption is that substantial innovation and major breakthroughs stem from “high risk” projects. Thus, the “high risk” element is the key to a successful ERC. While the applicant first established the “high risk” involved in the proposal, it should be backed up by preliminary findings and relevant experience for demonstrating some feasibility in a way that will not diminish the “high risk”. Finding this balance point is crucial.


The interview

Starting and Consolidator grants applicants reaching the 2nd evaluation stage are invited to a personal interview. The interview is known to be a highly stressful and demanding event. This is due to the fact that applicants are requested to present their big, ambitious, high risk project to a set of panel members and answer their questions in a very limited time frame. In many cases they will have only about ten minutes to do so. In recent years we see more and more panels that restrict the presentation time to five minutes, and also apply strict restrictions to the number of slides. This calls for a thorough and meticulous preparation of the applicant and the presentation to ensure the delivery of the key messages in the most effective way possible. Read more about what to expect in the ERC interview in Brussels.


To sum it all up, a successful ERC application is eventually an excellent implementation of the written and unwritten instructions. Understanding these brings the applicant a step closer to the desired ERC grant. For additional assistance when writing a specific ERC grant proposal, consider our available services.

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