The European Research Council (ERC) was established to fund bottom-up research projects aimed at generating outputs of very high scientific value. After a successful pilot exercise executed in 2015, a new qualitative evaluation of the frontier nature of ERC-funded research was launched as part of the ERC Work Programme 2016.
A random sample of 155 projects was evaluated from a pool of 237 ERC-funded projects that ended before 30 June 2014. The evaluation was undertaken by independent, high‐level scientists who were selected by the ERC Scientific Council. The evaluators were asked to mark projects with one of the following four grades: 'scientific breakthrough', 'major scientific advance', 'incremental scientific contribution' and 'no appreciable scientific contribution'. In addition, they were asked to address a series of questions related to scientific impact, new methods, interdisciplinarity, and societal and economic impact for each project.
The evaluators found that a large majority generated very high scientific value: 73% of the projects have already made breakthroughs or major scientific advances. About 27% of the projects were incremental or, in a very few cases, did not make an appreciable scientific contribution. These findings by and large confirm the results of the pilot exercise, yet with a slight improvement. The study concludes that the ERC indeed funds high-risk/high-gain projects, in accordance with its mission, and that such projects are more likely to lead to breakthroughs. It also highlights the interdisciplinarity of many ERC projects.
The study furthermore found that impact went beyond scientific spheres, despite that this aspect was not taken into account at the time of funding. ERC-funded research has the potential to benefit the economy and society at large, with nearly half of the projects already having had impact in this respect and more than three quarters predicted to have such impact in the medium and long term.