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10 September 2012

Donald Dingwell, ERC’s Secretary General: European Grants Go Global

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The European Research Council (ERC) is on a mission to entice researchers from across the globe to apply for its substantial grants

Donald Dingwell, ERC’s Secretary General, tells about his bid to bring top scientific talent to Europe. 

Why is the ERC reaching out to emerging economies beyond Europe?
The vision is that research done in Europe should be of the highest quality. So we need the best minds. Excellence is the sole criterion in the ERC’s grant competitions. To turn the question around: what justification would there be to put a restriction or qualification on who can win ERC grants?

The idea is to make sure that global research talent participates as fully as possible in the ERC’s funding programmes. A lack of information about the ERC and its aims and ambitions should not get in the way. To date, I’m convinced it has. We want researchers in Taiwan to have the same understanding of what the ERC does as researchers in Europe.

How is the ERC planning to convince scientists to come to Europe when many are still pursuing the 'American dream'?
Everyone is upping the ante [trying to attract the best researchers]... Not only the US, but also Asia and other places. We can’t sit back, we have to explain what the opportunities are [in Europe]. The ERC offers substantial grants to the very best - both senior and junior - researchers for as long as five years. On top of this, the ERC’s processes are very user-friendly, efficient and transparent. We want our scientists to be able to focus on their research; the paper work has therefore been kept to a minimum. 

There are prejudices about Europe being a difficult place because of culture and language barriers.  The ERC has to battle against that. Europe has a varied landscape where certain places are more open than others. And we need to make sure people are aware of the possibilities these provide.

And don’t forget, the campaign is also targeting Europeans who are currently doing their research elsewhere.

What are the attractions for these scientists of coming to Europe, given the potential difficulties of getting a visa, experienced last year in France, for example, to stay on and continue their scientific careers?
We are pointing towards whatever we can that is easing the situation and making information on [the visa situation] more easily available. One example is the EURAXESS web portal, a single source of information on visa requirements, across Europe.

I don’t think anyone in Europe doubts that there are potential obstacles. But while there are challenges, Europe is changing. Certainly the [European] Commission is concerned about this and working at the highest level [to improve the situation].  The issue of free movement of scientists is at the centre of the ambition to create a single European Research Area.

How do overseas institutions where you have spoken feel about you trying to spark a brain drain?
There are typically two types of response:  those who get it and those who don’t. Those who don’t will stone wall and won’t encourage their people to find out about ERC grants. Those who do understand are keen to find ways to partner and share [their researchers] with a European research institution. The ERC rules allow grant holders to work a significant amount of time outside Europe, which means they can maintain an affiliation with the institution of origin.

What reassurance can you give EU taxpayers that financing non-EU scientists will benefit Europe in the long term?
Because [of] the nature of scientific progress it is critical to get the best minds in proximity to each other. This sounds imprecise, but it works. It’s clear that if we have the best mathematician from Australia at a European research institution for at least half of their time it will result in serendipitous discoveries and provide the inspiration for new research. That’s the way science works. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.