ERC projects are expected to introduce significant high gain to the scientific ecosystem (and beyond). Such “high-gain” essentially means that the impact of the project should not be limited to the specific, tangible and direct outcomes of the project. Instead, it is also assessed in view of what would be possible beyond the scope of the project, based on breakthroughs achieved by the project. For this reason, ERC proposals should be seen as “open-ended” research projects. Since this far-sighted approach is not a common expectation in most funding schemes, its meaning and implications are often elusive to researchers aiming to acquire ERC funding. In this present article, we’ll define the open-ended nature of ERC, and suggest ways to implement and assess this when establishing your ERC project proposal.
What is an open-ended project?
We will present the concept of open ended research from two complementary angles:
- First, ERC projects are large in scope. Typically, they last 5 years and are expected to be comprehensive in terms of the scientific questions asked. But comprehensive as they may be, these ambitious projects are always part of a bigger picture that no single project can uncover. In this context, the desired “open-ended” nature of ERC can be exemplified: The ERC project would shed some light on the bigger picture and significantly advance the field in the road perusing it. But the road will not end in 5 years. The horizon beyond the scope of the project might not be completely clear at the time of writing the proposal, but an ambitious vision should guide the writing.
- Second, ERC aims to fund fundamental, ambitious projects and expects them to reach significant breakthroughs. It is only natural that these breakthroughs (once achieved) will serve as the cornerstone for further research. Such breakthroughs can take the form of dogma or paradigm shifts that lead to the creation of new scientific domains or new research pathways. ERC is literally aiming at changing the existing scientific horizon by opening it to new ideas and challenges, based on the outcomes of these funded projects.
Understanding why ERC must be open-ended in nature
Traditional research projects (most Horizon Europe grants and other national grants in Europe and elsewhere) are typically expected to have a predefined set of outcomes, deliverables and intermediate milestones. This structure ensures a clear project plan which can be followed, monitored and audited during the project lifetime. It also minimizes the risk of not achieving the final outcomes.
In contrast, the ERC’s demand for such a fundamental change of the research landscape, and such significant conceptual breakthroughs, cannot be paired with a commitment to specific, finite outcomes. This expected high-gain (and the accompanying high-risk) means that a high level of uncertainty is involved. There is virtually little room for making assumptions or predicting how the project will evolve and what specific tangible outcomes will be possible within its scope.
Under the above circumstances, it is impractical to require a rigid and detailed work plan (as in the traditional grants), which includes work packages with specific timing, deliverables and strict milestones. Indeed, the ERC does not require any of these in the proposal. Instead, ERC expects the project to have an open-end, which hopefully will reach the expected high-gain and will open new research paths.
Three indicators to help you assess the open-ended research aspect
- Many applicants, which are used to the traditional structure and expectations of EU funding (Horizon Europe and/or national grants), believe that they should commit to tangible outcomes by the end of the project. This sometimes takes the form of a commitment to summarise all project results in a book, policy letter or journal paper. Other cases may suggest a prototype of a developed technology. Therefore, as a first indicator – if the project’s results can indeed be summed up in one final outcome, this might be a good indicator that the project does not have an open-end.
- Another indicator is the structure and level of detail of the work plan. In a project that aims to fundamentally change the way of thought of the scientific field, it is hard to anticipate the timing and intermediate milestones of progress at a high resolution. As mentioned above, it inherently includes a high level of uncertainty. Projects that have a very detailed work plan and are able to commit to specific deliverables and milestones at specific times during the project, might not have that needed flexibility. This is not to say you should give up a well-thought-out approach and work plan. The project’s approach and aims should be clear, but the level in which the project’s progress can be anticipated should reflect its fundamental nature and leave enough room for unexpected developments.
- The final indicator of open-ended research is your long-term vision. Try to assess what could be possible if your project is successful in achieving its goals. What scientific fields would be impacted and how? What possible new horizons would open? What further questions could be asked then? It is highly possible that you cannot assess all impacts at this early point in time. However, this thinking exercise would help you in assessing whether your project has the potential to genuinely change the way your scientific field thinks, and if your project has the potential gain expected in ERC. Good answers to these questions can ensure your project has an open-end.
In conclusion, if you are considering to apply to ERC – it is very important to acquire the above “open-ended” mindset. Such a way of thinking will realize in your research project proposal, and further impress the reviewers of the value and potential impact of your project. If you have any questions – please do not hesitate to contact us.