The COVID-19 pandemic has forcefully affected researchers and research institutions in different ways, halting some scientific projects and constraining severely the work of many. Since the early days of the crisis, the European Research Council (ERC) has implemented several COVID-19-related measures to the advantage of its grantees. They include the possibility of extending the duration of ongoing projects and a flexible approach to the start date of new projects. This led to a significant increase in the number of amendments to contracts at the initiative of researchers.
Furthermore, despite the tough constraints brought about by the pandemic and thanks to significant additional effort, evaluations of projects submitted by applicants in the last Horizon 2020 calls could be performed with no delays. Likewise, the call results were communicated on time. Further efforts on the part of the Executive Agency and the Scientific Council allowed the publication of the first Horizon Europe calls with minimal delay in February 2021. As a result, all foreseen ERC calls are implemented with no change in the evaluation dates, ensuring access to funding as planned.
Different categories of ERC applicants have been or will be affected differently by this pandemic: some could not access research facilities for extended periods of time or were not able to carry out fieldwork adequately, and some had to take on additional burden for teaching or home-schooling their children. The ERC Scientific Council remains particularly concerned about the potential specific impact of the pandemic on the youngest members of the scientific community, in particular women (see this example). This is why the ERC Scientific Council requested its Working Group on Gender Issues to consider the situation and suggest further measures. The ERC Scientific Council has decided to develop a tool to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ERC applicants’ research productivity. Due to the fact that the ERC Work Programme 2021 is already published, and therefore cannot be changed, the Work Programme 2022, which is being finalised, is the first where the new measures will be implemented.
The Scientific Council is determined to ensure equal opportunities in ERC competitions. Therefore, a level-playing field for all ERC applicants had to be found, while considering diversity of circumstances, including those affected by COVID-19. Any deviation from this objective would cause a serious loss for European research. After a careful analysis, the ERC Scientific Council has chosen to address the matter as follows: applicants will be able to declare any delays or gaps in scientific productivity related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the template for the grant proposals, in an objective manner. Applicants will be provided with clear guidance on how to do it. Such declarations will inform the evaluation process similarly to other situations currently considered (e.g. career breaks) ensuring the feasibility and the fairness of the measure. The presence of this declaration will also be explained in the guidelines for evaluators.
For the time being, the Scientific Council has not taken up suggestions to change the eligibility windows for its calls for two main reasons. First, widening the present windows is likely to increase the number of applicants in the Starting and Consolidator calls at a moment when there are clear signs of a spontaneous increase. This creates a major challenge to the quality of the evaluation. Second, the applicants’ success rates are regularly monitored. A multi-year analysis shows that the success rate by age – considering the candidates for Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants together – is more or less flat. In particular, no significant drop has been observed in the transition between different types of grants.
The European Commission has consistently supported scientific works on COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The new measures proposed on 21 April by the European Research Council of the European Commission clearly serve further towards the purpose of beating the pandemic and increasing the resilience of not only the Union but the world for any other viral outbreaks. ECOPNET (European Cooperation and Partnership Network) appreciates the European Commission's and the ERC's work on these and continues to establish new network bridges between the Commission and those working to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: European Research Council Press Corner