The ERC’s mission statement is to fund “high-risk/high-gain research”. In other words, the expectation is that the project’s gain will be so high that it will be worth the significant risk taken to obtain it. How high? Proposing a project idea with “high-gain” in ERC standards is far from trivial. In this article, we discuss the meaning of “high-gain” in ERC to help you assess if your project idea is indeed in line with the ERC’s expectations.
High-gain in ERC
“Gain” can be synonymous to impact, and generally refers to what would happen if the project successfully achieves its objectives. What would the field of research, or the world, then look like?
The ERC high-gain is expected to comply with all the following characteristics:
- Major – The impact of the project, if successful, should be as high as possible. The proposed project is expected to provide major breakthroughs, taking the field considerably forward and answering/addressing a major knowledge gap. In their evaluation report, the reviewers will be asked to answer the question: “To what extent does the proposed research address important challenges?”
- Disruptive – The ERC is expecting frontier research that has the potential to transform science and society at large. The project is expected to not only be disruptive to its field, but possibly to other fields of research as well.
- Ambitious – An additional question presented to reviewers during the review process is: “To what extent are the objectives ambitious and beyond the state of the art?”. Therefore, the project is expected to propose novel concepts and approaches leading to a highly ambitious gain that will go significantly beyond the current knowledge.
- Unique – Being a highly competitive grant, the impact of the project should stand out. In this context, we ensure to avoid a project that can be considered merely “more of the same”. If, for example, the project achieves something comparable to other efforts in the field (or in other fields for that matter), the gain would not be considered high.
- Global – The ERC expects projects to have a global impact. It’s important to make sure that the conclusions of the project can be generalized, and that the project will not be considered too narrow, or “local”in scope. For example, if the conclusion only applies to a specific setting or is valid only in specific conditions, the gain of the project may be considered too low. We should also make sure that the phenomenon we want to explain is recurring. If this is a one-time phenomenon, its results cannot be generalized, thus lowering the impact and the motive to investigate it. To achieve a high gain would require zooming out, investigating a wider scope and possible impacts on other disciplines.
Additional Important points about high-gain in ERC
Correlation to the project’s high-risk – the expectation of high-gain is highly connected to the “high-risk” attribute of ERC. In their assessment, the reviewers are asked: “To what extent is the proposed research high-risk/high-gain?”
As discussed above, the gain must be significant to justify the major risk taken. However, gain on its own is not enough in the context of ERC. If the high gain is achieved through incremental or trivial advancement, it will not be considered competitive in ERC. It needs to be achieved through ambitious, high-risk research, which typically enables a different type of gain.
Do not confuse the long-term vision and the gain– it is important to distinguish between the specific gain of the project and the long-term vision, which could be broad and would need input from other efforts in the field. Both can be discussed in the proposal, but it needs to be clear what this project can realistically achieve. Ask yourself: Does the project directly achieve the declared high-gain, or is it just a stepping stone (with limited gain) towards the long-term vision (which carry the real high gain)?
How to present the high-gain in your ERC application
To successfully showcase that your ERC research project encompasses the ‘high-gain’ requirement, we suggest the following important steps:
- ERC’s high gain attribute is one of the most central aspects of ERC projects. The expected impacts of a successful project should thus all be explicitly addressed in the text. Therefore, we urge and stress to present all relevant aspects of the gain of the project in all relevant fields.
- If the project’s gain is mostly applicative, which is common in some domains, make sure to discuss the project’s contribution to basic science on top of the trivial applicative gain. Will the project generate new valuable scientific knowledge? How will this knowledge impact the field?
- Importantly, though publications and dissemination of the project’s results are expected as a result of any ERC project, they cannot be presented as the main outputs of the project. The gain must refer to major and specific scientific achievements that could be gained as a direct result of the project.
In conclusion, the expectation of high-gain in ERC may seem simple or trivial when compared to other elusive expectations like “high-risk”, but in practice not every project’s gain is truly “ERC-gain”. Being one of the cornerstones of ERC, it should not be overlooked when assessing the competitiveness of the project and must be directly addressed in the proposal application.
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