Dear Prof. Jungwirth, you had an honour to serve as a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council since 2015 until the end of 2020 when your mandate has finished. Can you please explain to us laymen how the Scientific Council works? How much of your time did the work for ERC Scientific Council take?
Officially, the amount of work for the ERC as a Scientific Council member is estimated to one month per year. This covers the main responsibilities of the Council members during and in between the bi-monthly Council meetings, namely in overseeing and approving the composition and functioning of the ERC evaluation panels, and overseeing and approving the annual ERC Work Programmes which define and describe the ERC calls for funding. In reality, it also depends on circumstances and the involvement of each individual Council member in various additional working groups of the Council or in other committees related to the Council membership. The circumstances of last year, for example, were quite special and required additional work. First, it was the transition from Horizon 2020 to Horizon Europe which required a lot of extra attention. Then it was the Covid crisis and the related transfer of all activities, including the Council meetings and the ERC panel meetings from on-site to on-line. Finally, we also had a crisis with the new President of ERC which the Council found unfit for the job. Regarding the involvement in other related working groups or committees, in my case, for example, I was heading the Council’s Working Group on Widening European Participation and was sitting on the ERC Steering Committee. The former group was in charge of setting up additional instruments for promoting ERC in the underperforming countries, while the latter committee was an interface between ERC and the European Commission.
In 2011, you obtained prestigious ERC Advanced grant. It is five years now since your project ended, can you evaluate what other things apart of finances the ERC grant gave you?
First of all, it helped our team to initiate a new research field which is now broadly recognized world-wide and shows a broad potential in the basic solid state physics research as well as in a more applied research in microelectronics (specifically spintronics). While I was ineligible to apply for a follow up ERC grant due to my ERC Scientific Council membership, I am sure the ERC Advanced grant helped me in my subsequent successful applications for large grants under the excellence programs of the Czech Science Foundation, or a Horizon 2020 grant obtained under the Future and Emerging Technologies funding scheme which our team coordinates, and which involves partners from Germany and the UK.
"ERC is not a generic funding scheme for a broad pool of scientists and projects but is aiming at identifying top researches with outstanding ideas. The success in ERC competitions, therefore, does not reflect so much if a country has a good solid research but if it can deliver top ground-breaking science or technology."
You lead two laboratories, one at the institute of Physics at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and the other one at the University of Nottingham. You also spent several years doing research in USA. According to your personal experience, what are the main differences in everyday researcher´s life in these three countries if there are any?
In the UK and US, I work or worked at universities while in Prague our group is in the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The differences I encountered are therefore partly due to general differences between research performed at universities and non-university institutes. The researcher’s life in our group in Prague is then more akin to, e.g., Max Planck Institutes in Germany or CNRS in France, than at, e.g., the Charles University in Prague. What is more typical for a university research all around the world is that groups are smaller, with a narrower scope of research activities, and scientists having heavier teaching loads. We enjoy the possibility offered by research institutes, to run a relatively large and interdisciplinary research program which allows us to look at problems starting from a fundamental scientific level all the way towards potential practical applications. And while we do train graduate and undergraduate students – they do a major part of our research; we have the privilege of having only a limited load of teaching university courses.
For six years, you were a member of the ERC Evaluation Panel. Can you summarize the most common mistakes or weaknesses you encountered in the evaluated proposals?
I was a member of the ERC Advanced Grant Evaluation Panel and here many of the applicants where already leaders in their respective research fields with stellar CVs. So typically, we would have a sufficient number of proposals in which the track record part was excellent. The more difficult part to identify in these proposals was the utterly new innovative idea and the courage of these established researchers to leave, at least partially, their comfort zone.
"I am sure the ERC Advanced grant helped me in my subsequent successful applications for large grants under the excellence programs of the Czech Science Foundation, or a Horizon 2020 grant obtained under the Future and Emerging Technologies funding scheme which our team coordinates, and which involves partners from Germany and the UK."
Do you know whether researchers from the EU13 are widely represented among the panelist or reviewers of ERC projects?
The first part I know well because ERC is working hard to have their panels well balanced not only in terms of expertise but also in terms geographical and gender balance. While for the selection of the projects, excellence is the only criterion, in the selection of panel members the additional criteria of geographical and gender balance are equally important and enforced as much as possible in the given field. As a result, the EU13 countries are proportionally well represented in the panels. I do not have a comparably detailed statistics on the external expert reviewers. Here the ERC is trying again to maintain a pool of potential reviewers which is sufficiently geographically and gender balanced. Ultimately, however, it’s the panel members who appoint the external reviewers for the given grant application and, from my own experience, here the panel members typically search for the best match in terms of the reviewer’s expertise overlap with the proposal and the reviewer’s scientific reputation.
Since ERC was established, we can observe significant differences between Eastern and Western Europe in both – number of submitted ERC proposals and number of winning ERC projects. Why do you think our Eastern European researchers hesitate to apply in ERC calls and why so few of them succeed to get the ERC funding?
A short answer to these types of questions is that ERC is not a generic funding scheme for a broad pool of scientists and projects but is aiming at identifying top researches with outstanding ideas. The success in ERC competitions, therefore, does not reflect so much if a country has a good solid research but if it can deliver top ground-breaking science or technology. And here the outcomes of the ERC calls, unlike e.g. Nobel Prizes, are statistically much more relevant since every year ERC awards about 1000 grants. Clearly there are regions in Europe, including Czech Republic, which do not score well in this type of competition and the only solution to this problem is to attract and retain in the country scientists whose track records and ideas are ERC competitive. The state can come up with various incentives to motivate people to apply but, in the end, these would only materialize if the right people were in the country.
"Clearly there are regions in Europe, including Czech Republic, which do not score well in this type of competition and the only solution to this problem is to attract and retain in the country scientists whose track records and ideas are ERC competitive."
Do you have any advice how we could attract more successful ERC applicants in our Eastern European countries?
There is no magic simple solution to this major problem. It has to start on the individual institutional level with the management of the research organizations being motivated and able to identify, recruit and retain talents of the ERC level. This is virtually impossible without opening the research institutions to the world – Czech Republic is too small to have competitive science without being fully open to the world. Some of the universities and the Academy have recently introduced instruments in this spirit. Next level is the funding agencies which should nurture programs following the same principles as ERC – the EXPRO and Junior Star programs of the Czech Science Foundation are on the right track here. Another important funding instrument is a support for applicants who scored high in the ERC competition but did not get directly funded from ERC because of the limited ERC budget. Fortunately, we have this ERC runner up program installed in the Czech Republic under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education. We also need a well-organized office or offices providing hands on scientific and administrative support to the applicants when preparing their proposal, in particular for young scientists applying for Starting and Consolidator ERC grants. There is already some experience in the Czech Republic with organizing this support and there are now more serious attempts to professionalize these activities on a national level.
Does the ERC Scientific Council plan to address this imbalance in any way?
It is one of the major concerns of ERC. However, the solution is primarily in hands of other European programs (structural or cohesion funds in particular) or in hands if individual Member states and their research organizations. ERC cannot change its core evaluation principle in which excellence is the sole criterion. It can, however, actively promote ERC across Europe and provide some help. For example, ERC has introduced ERC Visiting Fellowship and ERC Mentoring initiatives. The role of ERC in these initiatives is to provide member states, and the EU13 countries in particular, with a list of potentially available ERC grantees or former ERC panel member keen to host prospect ERC applicants in their research groups or provide expert feedback on their proposals at the pre-application stage.