The Swedish Research Council has, on behalf of the government, mapped and analysed the participation of Swedish researchers in the European Research Council (ERC). This study was commissioned because of a reduction in the amount of grants awarded to researchers in Sweden since 2008.
Of the 2,307 applications submitted by Swedish researchers between 2007 and 2015, only ten percent were approved. This represents a success rate that is below the average of eleven percent. The highest success rate was in Switzerland (24 percent), followed by Israel (19 percent) and the Netherlands and France (16 percent).
The results for the Swedish-based researchers have varied from year to year. The most successful year was in 2008, when the figure was 30 percent. In that year, applications were only called for grants for established researchers (Advanced Grants). That year was followed by a downwards trend, reaching a low point in 2014 when only around seven percent of applications were granted. This proportion increased again in 2015, reaching 15 percent.
“It is too early to say whether the general downwards trend has reached a turning point. The proportion of successful applications oscillates quite dramatically and, because the number of grants is so small, the role played by chance can be quite significant. The results for 2008 represent quite a large deviation from other years, so it would be unwise to read too much into that”, says Marianne Hall, project manager at the Swedish Research Council.
In its report, the Swedish Research Council states that “the results indicate that Sweden has a lower rate of successful applications than would be expected, when compared to all the other countries”.
The report does not, however, provide any explanation for this. One hypothesis is that the researchers are not receiving enough, or sufficiently effective, support during the application process. Karolinska Institutet (KI) is the higher education institution in Sweden that receives the most ERC grants and has, in recent years, expanded the support provided to researchers applying for funding in all international calls for applications.
“It is the ten big universities that get the money. These provide services and support for researchers which facilitates the application process and increases the researchers’ prospects of achieving success in their applications. Similar levels of support are not always available at smaller institutions. There is a need for more help for researchers at higher educational institutions that do not have support functions”, says Marianne Hall.
The larger universities in Sweden have similar service functions as those found in, for example, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The Swedish Research Council’s commission also involved the submission of proposals for how the situation could be improved. The report contains a number of proposed measures.
One suggestion is to make the ERC more visible to researchers in Sweden, as well as increasing Sweden’s international visibility, in order to attract successful researchers. Other ideas involve providing more help with applications and taking advantage of the experience of researchers who have succeeded in receiving ERC grants, or who have been involved in the application assessment panels.
An additional proposal is to expand the funding of research ideas that rank highly in the ERC’s evaluation but that have not been awarded a grant, similar to the funding that, to a certain extent, already exists. Last year, for example, four Swedish foundations joined forces in order to finance young researchers who had not been awarded the ERC’s Starting Grant, despite having achieved the highest rating in the review stage. The Swedish Research Council has provided a similar grant.
“The investment of a great deal of work is involved in both the researcher’s application and the ERC’s assessment process. We want to access the benefit involved in the work that has already been performed. Researchers invest their time but there is a low success rate for applications. This can mean that some of our best researchers do not apply – they may, for example, have an alternative form of funding.”
More equal results
At the end of August, the report was submitted to the government. Marianne Hall would also like to highlight the positive aspects of the report’s content.
“The prevailing perception that, over a period of time, Sweden has not been very successful needs to be reappraised with a more nuanced view. We actually receive quite a lot of funds.”
Between the start of 2007 and 2015, researchers in Sweden have received €372 million. This places Sweden in eighth place on the list of countries awarded grants – which is, as expected, topped by the major research countries of the UK, Germany and France.
One positive trend involves gender equality. In a historical sense, applications from men have been more likely to be granted than those made by women. Sweden appears to have succeeded in breaking this trend. In 2013, applications from women were granted at the same rate as for those made by men. In 2014 and 2015, women in Sweden had a higher rate of successful applications than their male colleagues. Within the ERC as a whole, the differences have decreased.
“The ERC’s work to promote gender equality has provided positive results. But we must continue to work with these issues.”
Female researchers are still applying for grants to a lesser extent than their male counterparts. One area stands out in particular. Within the social sciences and humanities, the Swedish women have a considerably lower success rate for the granting of funds than the average for women from all other countries.
“This large difference between Sweden and other countries is both surprising and worrying. I would like to investigate this more closely”, says Marianne Hall.
Footnote: In 2016, professor Eva Hemmungs Wirtén from Linköping was granted an ERC Advanced Grant for a five-year project of research into patents as part of the scientific infrastructure. She is the first woman working within the social sciences and humanities in Sweden to have been awarded an Advanced Grant.