“ERC funding is like an Olympic medal”

The newly-appointed vice-president of the European Research Council, Mart Saarma, encourages researchers from new fields, such as the humanities, to take advantage of the EU’s most important source of funding.

Professor Mart Saarma from the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki has coordinated top research in the biological and medical sciences at the European Research Council (ERC) since the beginning of this year. Professor Saarma was unanimously appointed one of the three vice-presidents by the 22 members of the Scientific Council, which decides on the ERC’s strategy and funding.

The ERC supports European top research by offering substantial grants, which are divided into three groups based on the researcher’s experience and achievements. Saarma compares a researcher with ERC funding to an Olympic gold-medallist in terms of significance and market value. “The best European researchers will gravitate towards Universities which have the best ERC ranking.”

Focus is golden

The University of Helsinki, especially its biological and medical research, has enjoyed success with ERC funding applications. “Unfortunately, this trend seems to be on the decline. We have forgotten to provide sufficient support for top research,” estimates Saarma.

The recent vice-president notes that his duty at the ERC is to promote top European research – not to protect the interests of the University of Helsinki or Finland. “We shouldn’t scatter our resources to every area imaginable, but instead focus on the kind of research we can do very well.”

Interdisciplinarity needed

Saarma hopes that University units which have so far made little effort to apply for ERC funding will begin to take advantage of this opportunity. He encourages humanities researchers in particular to learn more about ERC funding. “And if you do not secure funding on your first try or even your second, don’t lose faith. They will always find the best researchers.”

“Interdisciplinary cooperation is close to my heart. Even though my field is in the biological and medical sciences, I think the social sciences offer an important channel through which to share our innovations for the benefit of humanity.

The latest University of Helsinki researchers to receive confirmation of their ERC funding are Mikael Ehn for his particle research, Marjo Saastamoinen for her butterfly research, and philosopher Filipe Silva of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, who received a rare humanities grant.