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ERC Funding

CNRS in the Lead

Almost 10% of the 300 young researchers selected by the European Research Council (ERC) call are CNRS affiliated. A major success for the French organization.

Twenty-nine CNRS laureates! These outstanding results in the ERC1 call are not a surprise for Izo Abram, CNRS director of European affairs. “It goes without saying, we’re extremely pleased and very proud of these results,” he enthuses.
The ERC Starting Researcher Grants can amount to €2 million for a duration of 5 years. The aim is to promote excellence by stimulating the very best, creative scientists to be adventurous, and hence also reverse the brain drain Europe is facing. With its first call launched in December 2006, the ERC created an open competition for funding. By the April 2007 deadline, it was flooded with replies: 9167 proposals from all over Europe, in all fields of research, from humanities and social sciences, to life sciences, and physical and engineering sciences. “It was hard to miss this call, which represents such a great opportunity for young researchers to establish themselves,” says Nathan D. McClenaghan 2, a CNRS laureate. CNRS also actively encouraged directors of research units to identify potential candidates. It worked: 260 CNRS researchers sent in their proposals. With its 29 laureates, the success rate for CNRS is 11%, compared to that of 3% for all the European proposals. “It shows that CNRS attracts brains, knows how to select them and, last but not least, supports them,” says Abram, “these being the three ingredients for good research.” “CNRS affords great intellectual freedom and encourages us to undertake long-term and risky research,” confirms another laureate Terence Strick.3 “CNRS also facilitates establishing fruitful collaboration with excellent scientists in different labs,” adds McClenaghan. One of the lessons that we can draw from these results is that with their status of civil servants, and their “job for life”, CNRS researchers have the freedom that top research requires.
Moreover, this competition was a benchmark experience. “CNRS alone did almost as well as the whole of Germany,” says Abram. With a total of 40 laureates–including those from other research institutions and universities– France ranks second (after the UK) in the number of recipients. Another eight CNRS projects were distinguished but will not be given a grant because of insufficient funding. Nevertheless, the European Council recommends they should be supported by their national agency–in this case, the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche).
“If talented researchers from abroad are still hesitant about applying to CNRS, this great achievement should definitely encourage them. It will give them the opportunity to combine funds for independent research, the freedom, the spirit of audacity now synonymous with CNRS, all this in a scientific environment of quality,” says Abram. Each year, the organization hires 400 new researchers, of which 100 are foreigners, mostly Europeans.

Samantha Maguire

Who are these young researchers?

The 29 CNRS laureates work in all fields of research. To be selected, candidates had to have obtained their PhD more than two years but less than nine years prior to the call. They needed to be either fully independent or in the process of becoming independent of senior colleagues. Candidates of any country could apply as long as they were hosted by a legally recognized organization from the EU or associated countries. For example, Julia Kempe1 is German but joined CNRS in 2001 and now shuttles between her two labs, in Orsay and in Tel-Aviv. This top researcher, who received the CNRS bronze medal in 2006, won the ERC grant for her project in the field of quantum computation, to create new cryptographic tools for better protection of personal information. “With this grant,” she says, “I will start a visitors’ programme, hire post-docs, students and a part-time secretary. Hopefully then I will have more time to actually do research.” Terence Strick, another laureate, is Franco-American. The aim of his project is to use new biophysical tools to study biological interactions at a molecular level in real time. “This grant will allow the purchase of microscopes to detect single molecules and develop instrumentation,” says Strick. “Moreover, it will give the lab international exposure, enabling us to hire the best post-docs.” A €2 million grant amounts to ten times more than most other grants available. It will let laureates set up a proper lab, manage it long-term, and not be constantly looking for renewal of annual funding. The ERC call for Starting Independent Researchers will be renewed every year. This is very good news for potential applicants.

1. Laboratoire de recherche en informatique (CNRS / Université Paris-XI). Kempe is currently on leave of absence to Tel Aviv University, where she is creating a new group.

Notes :

1. The ERC was created in 2005 under the EU's 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. It is the first pan-European funding agency for frontier research.
2. Institut des sciences moléculaires (CNRS / Université Bordeaux-I / Université Bordeaux-IV / ENSCP Bordeaux).
3. Institut Jacques Monod (CNRS / Université Paris-VI / Université Paris-VII).

Contacts :

Izo Abram
CNRS director of European affairs, Paris.


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