Writing an ERC proposal

ERC’s aim to fund scientific excellence and look at:

(i) the groundbreaking nature, ambition and feasibility of the research project,

(ii) the intellectual capacity, creativity and commitment of the PI.

Three main types (5 years of funding):

  • Starting: <1.5 mill euros. PhD 2-7 years ago. =>1 important publication (not with PhD supervisor)
  • Consolidator: <2 mill euros. PhD 7-12 years ago. Independence record.
  • Advanced: <2.5 mill euros. Significant research achievement.

Top Tips

  • Convince them of the scientist’s scientific excellence, and that they have a high-risk, high-gain pioneering research proposal.
    • Excellent research idea (stand-alone project), rigorous scientific approach, excellent track-record, outstanding knowledge of the field. Creativity, ambition and boldness are advantages.
  • The B1 and B2 sections are evaluated separately and should be written differently.
    • B1 (5 pages) is evaluated first by the Panel (four members, broad backgrounds), and is used to accept to stage 2 or reject. This part is the most competitive (you are competing with 20-45 other proposals within each Panel). It should be written for the generalist. Keep it simple, frame things generally, talk big picture/wider perspective. ‘Charm the Panel’. Make it accessible, pleasant, and engaging. Add a schematic to the summary/abstract.
    • B2 (14 pages) is evaluated by both the Panel and at least three external refs.
  • Ensure sufficient risk management is presented in both sections (pitfalls and alternative approaches).
  • Differences with R01. Don’t need preliminary data. Can be an early stage project. Doesn’t need to relate to human health. The B1 section of an ERC (5 pages) is like an extended version of the R01 specific aims.



Three parts:

  • A: administration. Practical/admin on career, project, budget.
  • B1 and B2: descriptions of science.
  • B1. Extended synopsis, track record, CV assessed by a panel. A grade – next step. B or C, rejected.
  • B2. Full proposal reviewed by panel and external refs. Scientist has an interview with the Panel.
  • Recommend to start writing B2 first, then B1.
  • B1 and B2 have different functions/evaluated differently, so should be written differently.



  • Business card.
  • Three sections (check current call for exact requirements):
    • ~2000 character abstract/summary page.
    • Extended synopsis of the proposal (max 5 pages). Highlight ground-breaking nature and feasibility.
    • CV.
  • Evaluated first by a broad Panel.
  • Use specific template/page limit

Evaluation of B1: panel looking at feasibility, acting as generalists, not specialists.

Avoid jargon, avoid excessive highlighting bold/italics. Keep it simple and clear. Use text boxes for Objectives, Milestones, Feasibility/Pitfalls. Use schematics. Leave them with an overall impression of the proposal (avoid too many specialised details). Don’t oversell. Make them want to see more about how you can deliver in B2 (methodology). Panel members looking for reasons to reject. Very competitive.

11 questions to cover in B1:

  1. Why is your project new/innovative? Focus on aspects that are radically difference than done in the past. You need to be proposing a separate/standalone project.
  2. Does it go substantially beyond state of the art? Justify why it’s ground breaking, why it’s significant, and a major step in field.
  3. Why is it necessary/impt to carry out this project? Why does ERC need to fund it and not a national funding agency?
  4. Have you proven/supported your case? Do you have a hypothesis? Panels generally like clearly stated hypothesis-driven proposals (not a requirement) with good supporting evidence. Have realistic goals, be ambitious but not over ambitious.
  5. Is it timely? Why hasn’t it been done before?
  6. What is the risk? Risk assessment needs including in B1 and B2. Not expected each part to be high-risk. Need to show how to manage risk. Does it justify potential gain? Is the high risk too early in the project? Propose alternatives.
  7. Have you given a realistic picture of your collaborations? This should not be a collaborative project – only collaborate when need expertise. Should be clear you are driving the project.
  8. Why are you the best/only person who can do this? Why is this a better approach than your competitors?
  9. Have you shown independence (for more junior applicants)? You need to be able to handle 5 years of funding. Explain if you have managed that before.
  10. Are you active and internationally recognised? List your committees, research mobility, international collaborations, editors/reviewer.
  11. Show scientific leadership in CV.

Additional Tip: Panel members recommend having a graphic on the summary page.


  • Panel and external refs look into methodology, and how you place yourself in the state of the art.
  • Tell them exactly what you expect to do, work plan, explore hypothesis, and any supporting evidence if you have it.
  • 14 pages (loose format):
  • State of the art and objectives.
  • Methodology
  • Useful structure for each Aim (similar to R01):
    • Groundbreaking Nature: Motivation/Rationale
    • Scientific Approach: Methodology (end of each, a sentence of what it will show).
    • Potential Impact: Expected outcome. Include broader applications.
    • Include risk assessment and feasibility –highlight high risk high gain, highlight expert support and prelim data/PI expertise supporting feasibility.

Five tips:

  1. Clearly explain quantitative and qualitative differences to state of art. What do you want to achieve? How is it different from what’s been done? Show the refs and panel that you have an intimate knowledge of the field.
  2. Provide alternative strategies to mitigate risk. Many don’t do this well enough. Risk assessment. Really important to do well. Don’t need a dissemination or management plan like for other European grants.
  3. Make sure there is an obvious link between B2 and B1. B2 shouldn’t be a rough and spaced out version of B1. Better start with B2, write it well, then focus on B1.
  4. Make use of the evaluation criteria to structure your proposal – use them as headings: Groundbreaking Nature, Potential Impact, Scientific Approach, or as trains of thought running through the proposal.
  5. Make proposal easy to read and attractive. Write understandable to people not experts in your field. Use paragraphs, correct typos, avoid mistakes. Check figures coherence, use full space available, give full refs. Include timeline on people you will employ. Justify resources and explain budget properly.

Also consider: Budget Analysis – doesn’t need to be too detailed but it does need to match what is needed. e.g., reasonable number of post-docs, funding for open access (required).

Five typical reasons for rejection:

  1. Project too narrow or too broad
  2. Incremental research
  3. Collaborative effort
  4. Not detailed enough
  5. Insufficient risk management strategy (What are the conceptual and technical pitfalls and what can you do about them? The ability to assess risk and mitigate it can be what separates a superficial grant from a good grant. Dig deep here – not just that you’re familiar with the approach so don’t foresee problems, or making very minor adjustments to protocols. What would happen if your hypothesis was disproven? There is a way often to present pitfalls that don’t undermine your proposal but instead demonstrate great scholarship. It’s an important opportunity that should be seized because it’s a key evaluation point.)

Three typical reasons for rejection based on researcher record:

  1. Insufficient track record, potential for independence, and/or experience leading projects.
  2. Less senior researcher applying for starting.
  3. Explain your independence from supervisor.

Evaluation Process

  1. An interdisciplinary Panel of four scientists evaluates B1 only. Pass or Fail.
  2. B1 and B2 are evaluated by at least three external refs, and the four panel members.
  3. Scientists have in-person interviews with the Panel in Brussels.
  4. Panel uses the interview, the referees’ comments, and their own reviews to decide which proposals to fund.

The Panel

  • 25% new, most reinvited.
  • Choose the right panel to fit the project (find in information for applicants) – may be reassigned. Target to that panel. Success rate same for each panel.
  • Four panel members assigned to each proposal. You can request a cross-panel review.
  • Each panel sees 20-45 proposals.

Step 1: Panel members read B1

  • They focus on feasibility. Charm them at this step. Make their lives easy by writing a clear proposal.
  • They are asked to answer a series of questions when they evaluate your proposal (see below) and to write a review. They mark the proposal and applicant from 1-5 (kept secret). This is used to create a ranked list for the meeting.
  • At the meeting, the Panel discusses each proposal in detail. Panel calibrates and decides which people they want to see for an interview. They can invite 3 x the scientific budget for each panel. Then they choose refs (at least 3 refs /proposal).

Step 2: The four Panel members and >three external refs evaluate B1 and B2

  • Look at methodology. Use criteria (below).

Step 3: ERC interview

Step 4: Decision

  • A (fund if sufficient funds available) and B (don’t fund).

Criterion 1 – RESEARCH PROJECT: Ground-breaking nature and potential impact of the research project

  • To what extent does the proposed research address important challenges?
  • To what extent are the objectives ambitious and beyond the state of the art (e.g. novel concepts and approaches or development between or across disciplines)?
  • To what extent is the proposed research high risk/high gain (i.e. if successful the payoffs will be very significant, but there is a high risk that the research project does not entirely fulfil its aims)?

Scientific Approach

  • To what extent is the outlined scientific approach feasible bearing in mind the extent that the proposed research is high risk/high gain?
  • To what extent are the proposed research methodology and working arrangements appropriate to achieve the goals of the project?
  • To what extent does the proposal involve the development of novel methodology?
  • To what extent are the proposed timescales, resources and PI commitment adequate and properly justified?

Criterion 2 – PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: Intellectual capacity and creativity

The questions below can have one of the following five responses: Exceptional/Excellent/Very Good/Good/Non-competitive

  • To what extent has the PI demonstrated the ability to conduct ground-breaking research?
  • To what extent does the PI provide evidence of creative independent thinking?
  • To what extent does the PI have the required scientific expertise and capacity to successfully execute the project?