ERC grants made in Luxembourg


This feature is written by

Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency, is the national contact point for ERC and Horizon Europe funding. We help public and private researchers find relevant opportunities and assist you during proposal writing and project management. 

Most scientists need no introduction to the prestigious funding schemes offered by the European Research Council – they have been described as one of the success stories of the European research funding framework and have become a global beacon of excellence in blue sky research.

The ERC grants provide funding of bottom-up projects in all scientific domains for outstanding researchers from all career levels (≥ 2 years after the PhD). Funding ranges from €1.5 million for Starting grants (with an additional million under specific circumstances) to €10 million (+4 million additional) for the Synergy grants, based on the excellence of the project and the applicant (or applicants in the case of the Synergy grant).

All funding programmes, both national and international, claim that they fund only the best of the best – but the ERC, with its high-risk / high-gain approach and its highly competitive nature, is in a league of its own. In fact, a common reason for aiming for this scheme is not the funding by itself, but the international recognition and visibility it will bring to a researcher and his/her host organization. Speaking of gender, the European Research Council has been at the forefront of promoting gender equality throughout its selection process.

From zero to 15

In the first years of FP7 research funding framework (2007-2014), when the ERC was first established, Luxembourg did not excel. Our research ecosystem, still in a budding phase, managed to attract a single ERC grant, while most applicants failed. Luxembourgish researchers abroad fared a little better however, reeling in 4 such prestigious grants.

Fast forward to 2020, with the current framework programme (Horizon 2020, 2014-2020) just about finished. It is safe to say that our research landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the past 10 years: the University of Luxembourg has consolidated its research, its scientists are collaborating in multidisciplinary projects with the public research institutes and industry. National funding programmes have managed to attract top-level scientists from a number of disciplines and the different organizations, foremost the University, have installed support teams that help their principal investigators to apply for prestigious funding schemes such as the ERC.

The result: we now have 15 ERC grants in Horizon 2020: 3 Starting, 7 Consolidator and 3 Advanced, and 2 Proof of Concept grants (that allow grantees from the main ERC programmes to bring their research ideas closer to market). Additionally, 9 Luxembourgish scientists abroad have received and ERC in Horizon 2020. To put this accomplishment into perspective, ERC applicants in Luxembourg had a 19% success rate (highest in the EU), while Luxembourgish applicants abroad had a 24% success rate (highest in the EU by a 4 point margin).

So what’s the secret? As often, there’s no single element that guarantees success, but there are a few ingredients that make Luxembourg very competitive:

  • A young and dynamic research landscape where early and mid-career stage scientists are valorised for their achievements
  • Continuous public investment into the research infrastructure
  • Attractive national funding programmes (FNR) that attract talented researchers
  • A limited spectrum of research priorities that allow for focus, critical mass and synergies between teams
  • A good research support infrastructure, helping with administrative and technical questions and providing funding for external trainings and consulting

Additionally, ERC applicants in Luxembourg can benefit from the support of our National Contact Point for Horizon 2020 / Horizon Europe at Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency. Our (free) support includes support in the elaboration and fine-tuning of research projects, personalized discussions throughout the proposal stage, proposal reviewing and interview training. We organize trainings on a range of topics on a regular basis, we can direct you to other European funding programmes and help you identify research collaborators, public and private.

What is the effect on the research system? There is little doubt that having a high share of ERC grantees has an impact on a national research system. We compared the performance in terms of grant applications in Luxembourg between ERC, ATTRACT and PEARL grantees, the latter two being somewhat similar national schemes by the FNR. Taking into account FNR and Horizon 2020 funding, ERC grantees showed the highest yearly funding average and were more likely to apply and receive EU funding. Furthermore, having a significant number of ERC grantees creates a local knowledge base and incentivises additional applicants.

Are you ready for an ERC?

Are you ready for an ERC? Most researchers have or will ask this question at some point in their career. Often scientists tend to delay their submission until the last year of their respective eligibility window for the Starting or Consolidator grants. While this might make sense in particular cases, the data show that success rates are evenly distributed – that is more experienced applicants for a StG are on average not more likely to succeed than their “more junior” counterparts.

Of course everybody wants to wait until their next big publication hits Science, Nature et al. But H-scores and publication records are not the only element influencing a reviewer’s decision – a lot hinges upon your general contributions to your field, your (perceived) potential to create something entirely new, the ability to think outside of the box and foremost to make the reader of your proposal trust in your great idea. This requires knowledge, experience and a lot of time and resources. Most successful applicants need more than a year to write a competitive proposal, and often they don’t succeed at the first try.

But the right mind-set (the ERC is not a place to recycle your rejected research proposals), internal and external support (colleagues, team members, research support, administration) and a truly breakthrough research idea (balancing risk and gain, experience and collaboration, interdisciplinarity and impact) will give you a fighting chance.

Of all the ERC schemes, the Synergy grants have thus far not produced any projects in Luxembourg. In this programme, 2 to 4 independent principal investigators can submit one large and very ambitious project together. One of these PIs can be based outside of Europe (e.g. US, Japan etc), but it is also possible to have 4 from the same host organisation. Another interesting element is that the different group leaders can come from different career stages (say a junior group leader from Luxembourg with two senior scientists from France and Germany) and the innovative selection panels guarantee that multidisciplinary aspects are promoted rather than discouraged.

Where is the ERC headed?

So where is the ERC headed? As the last ERC calls from Horizon 2020 have passed, many scientists are wondering what Horizon Europe will hold for them. In terms of ERC, the changes so far are modest. There will for example be an interview round for the Advanced Grant applicants as well, and a few new scientific panels have been introduced to reflect recent scientific developments. The tentative deadlines for the next calls in 2021 are  March 9th (StG), April 20th (CoG), August 31st (AdG). The next Synergy call is expected in 2022.

If you are interested in the ERC programme, please get in touch:

Charles Betz, PhD

Advisor – European R&D and Innovation Support

T +352 43 62 63 – 895  I  M +352 621 986 668

About the European Research Council (ERC) 

The European Research Council, set up by the EU in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between grantees’ pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.

Discover the series introducing ERC grantees in Luxembourg

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Anja Leist wants to find out how to resist the decline of our cognitive abilities in old age. Her international research has already achieved a first result: improving education helps prevent problems occurring decades later.

War as an electoral weapon

Politicians and voters in the countries of Ex-Yugoslavia are still referring to conflicts which happened two decades ago. A political scientist wants to understand why and how to let go of the past.

Put some sunshine in your engine

A chemist wants to use solar energy to produce hydrogen from water. His idea? To draw inspiration from the molecules that allow plants to grow and animals to breathe.

Information is not power, but above all, energy

A physicist has developed a new theory of thermodynamics to describe the microscopic world. It explains the astonishing efficiency of biological motors in our cells, improves the efficiency of chemical reactions and reveals the concrete role played by this abstract concept: information.

Kaleidoscopic microbeads to fight counterfeiting

A physicist invented a new method to authenticate objects by using the strange properties of liquid crystals. He also spun them into smart elastic bands for applications in soft robotics and wearable technologies.

A microscope faster than light

Physicist Daniele Brida develops ultrafast lasers to follow in slow-motion chemical reactions and the inner working of electronic devices. This new kind of microscope allows the observation of phenomena at the nanoscale that were until now just too fast to be seen – improving photovoltaics and electronics devices.

When the drugs don’t work

Chemical compounds can have several stable forms – with dramatic consequences. A physicist at the University of Luxembourg can predict when this can occur: he has develop methods to precisely calculate the stability of molecules. These tools are now used by hundreds of scientists worldwide. They could also help understand why the new coronavirus is so contagious.

What microbes really do in our guts

Countless microorganisms live peacefully in our body, but they also can be involved in many diseases. To find out exactly what role they play, a biologist has given himself a Herculean task: survey all the biomolecules produced by the microbes residing in our guts.

Artificial intelligence can be smarter

Machine learning algorithms seem all-powerful, but still function passively: they merely analyse the data they are fed with. Björn Ottersten makes them smarter by letting them actively probe their environment. His work aims to improve sensors of self-driving cars, sharing of mobile bandwidth and Internet traffic.

The ERC series is written by Daniel Saraga. The purpose of this ERC series is to showcase the high quality of research in Luxembourg, and how it is also attracting prestigious international funding.

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