Inteview with Núria Sebastián Gallés, Vice-President of the European Research Council

Professor Núria Sebastián Gallés, Vice-President of the European Research Council (ERC) is a Professor in Psychology at the Department of Information and Communication Technologies, Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

Prof Sebastian Galles received her PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of Barcelona in 1986. After further training at the Max Plank Institute and CNRS, she has worked in Barcelona, first at the University of Barcelona and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. 

Her research focuses on the study of language learning, its perception, and issues related to language processing in general, with a special emphasis on bilingual populations. She is a pioneer in research into bilingual learning in newborns. 


Can you introduce yourself and research?

I am a professor of Psychology at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. I am one of the three Vice Presidents of the European Research Council. I am also a holder of an ERC Advanced Grant.


How is the ERC governed?

The ERC is governed by a body of 22 researchers. This is a very distinct feature of the ERC. We have a president (note: read an interview with a current ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, May 2014, here) and 21 members of the Scientific Council. Members of the Council, including me, are researchers who have their interests, their lives, and their research. We get no salary from the EU and we do this besides working in our host institutions. We don't represent our countries, but our research fields.  


Prior to becoming a Scientific Council member, you succeeded in getting an ERC Advanced Grant. Can you share some tips? We heard you were rejected twice before a successful application.

The ERC likes risky projects. The first time I applied, my project was very risky. I went to the second phase of the application process and I almost made it, but the panel expressed some concerns that some parts of my project were too risky.

The second year I made the gross mistake of not writing properly my first phase proposal, and I didn't make it even to the second phase. The first evaluation is read by the panel members who have access to your CV and the resume of your application - altogether only five pages. This is a difficult document to write because you must convince them that they want to learn more about your project. At the same time, you must prove that you will be able to carry it out. You have few pages to describe why this is a groundbreaking idea worth investing the money, and this is tricky. I knew exactly what I wanted to do but I didn't specify my methods enough in those five pages. I didn't properly consider that the panel doesn't have access to the second phase documents at this stage. Only in my third year I succeeded with a project that was risky enough but not crazy, and my first phase application was self-contained. That's when I made it.

It can be worth noting, though, that the ERC application rules have been fine-tuned over time and the Scientific Council is constantly monitoring demand to adapt them further. It is better to submit your application to an ERC call when you're really ready for it, as if you don't get through the selection procedure you may have to wait a year until you're allowed to apply again.


What is the percentage of female ERC grantees?

We wish it could be higher; in total around 20%. It varies around 30% for Starting Grants, 20% for Consolidator Grants, and 10% for Advanced Grants. The percentage of grantees is more or less the same as the percentage of applicants. Of course the question is why so few, but the ERC cannot solve this. This mirrors the overall situation for women scientists in these respective age groups.

However, we are very concerned about this, which is why the ERC Scientific Council set up a dedicated Working Group on Gender Balance. We constantly work on solving specific issues, one of them is gender balance. We have changed the format of the applications so that women are not in disadvantage.


How does the ERC encourage female applicants?

The women don't sell themselves hard enough, that's the reality. When someone says to a woman that she is successful, the typical female response is „Yes, because I have a fantastic crew/supervisor/university that provided the necessary support". This is not a typical male response! Male researchers tend to say: „Yes, I am successful, because I am good".

But the ERC funds only one application written by one leader. The ERC wants great researchers, especially the young ones, to establish themselves. And if someone says they have published their results because of their team, and someone else says they have results simply because they are very good and have fantastic ideas, that introduces a small - but crucial - bias. That's why every year the ERC keeps changing slightly the format of the application. This was a bit frustrating as an applicant, but later as a member of the panel, I saw that this had been to help candidates. We want to see how good applicants are, not how well they sell themselves.


Can you tell us the timeline about the new ERC-NSFC Implementing Arrangement that will allow NSFC grant holders undertake short-term visits in ERC teams in Europe?

The whole process will be kicked off very soon! The ERC will gather interests from Principal Investigators holding ERC grants in hosting China-based researchers. This list will be sent to the NSFC together with the description of their respective projects. The NSFC will then inform Chinese researchers with an active NSFC grant of the opportunity through a call. The collaboration is intended to enable Chinese researchers to undertake single and long-term (6-12 months) or multiple short-term research visits (up to 6 months altogether) with the ERC teams in Europe. The first Chinese will start coming in 2016.


Do you consider mobility important in a researcher's career?

It is crucial. Even going away for a little while fills your head with new ideas! It is very difficult to get an ERC grant if you have never moved from your home institution. Few people manage to break through without it, because you must see what people do elsewhere. There are other ways of approaching problems - new methods, other perspectives. It is just like fertilisation. Even in biology, inbreeding is just not good.