Recognising the ERC Eligibility Extension as a world leading mechanism to support equality and diversity in the European Research Landscape
Since the creation of the European Research Council in 2007, over 10,000 excellent research investigators have been awarded one of the prestigious PI-driven Starting (StG), Consolidator (CoG) or Advanced (AdvG) Research grants. These research awards help retain and establish a presence of scientifically innovative research leaders in Europe contributing breakthrough discoveries and knowledge not only to our society in Europe but working on scientific ideas that send ripples across the world.
During these past 15 years, the ERC has had and continues to play a crucial role in European Research and has a key responsibility in shaping the leadership landscape of the future. The scientific community have witnessed through a range of initiatives implemented by the ERC over the years that the ERC recognise that caring responsibilities that many researchers experience at various times in their career can have a significant impact on their productivity that bears no relevance whatsoever on whether a researcher has brilliant ideas or the capacity to conduct research at the highest level in academia.
Amongst the many initiatives introduced by the ERC over the past years, one of the most important initiatives that deserves special recognition and praise across the world is the Eligibility Extension period. The eligibility extension period recognises that at certain times during our scientific careers it may be necessary for researchers to step back from professional duties for a finite period of time to care for family members. In particular, the physical and psychological toll of pregnancy and child bearing, in addition to looking after infants or elderly family members can be considerable and requires leave that carries a time penalty leading to a temporary decrease in research productivity. When these dips occur during the important early career years after attaining a PhD this can potentially represent a disadvantage in award schemes that have finite eligibility windows for applications, such as the 7 year window for the ERC Starting grant or the 12 year window for the Consolidator grant. Between 2007-2010 the ERC initially granted mothers a 12 month extension to the eligibility window for every child born after their PhD (with a maximum extension of 4.5 yrs). In 2010 this extension was further revised to provide an 18 month maternity extension for every child and also introduced eligibility extensions for paternity leave on a month for month basis. These initiatives effectively provide an important mechanism to equalise the playing field for carers when applying for ERC grants.
The impact of implementing these initiatives is now becoming clearer with every year of data transparently reported by the ERC on the number of grants obtained by male and female researchers and their success rates. Statistics recently presented at the biggest European Geoscience Union general assembly held in Vienna Austria in 2022 by the ERC, highlight that the majority of funded research grants within the standard time windows for Starting and Consolidator grants are still awarded to male researchers but the success rates of male and female researchers are similar (EGU22-4838_presentation-h322733). It is also clear that there is a trend for both male and female researchers to attain an ERC grant towards the end of their standard eligibility time window, when track records likely have their biggest impact (6 and 11 yrs, for the Starting and Consolidator grants respectively)(EGU22-4838_presentation-h322733).
During the extended eligibility time window (7+ and 12+ for StG and CoG, respectively) a large number of female researchers are benefitting with 38% of all StG awards (between 2018-2021) obtained by female researchers applying during the extension window and 56% when considering the CoG awards (between 2018-2021).
This clearly demonstrates that the number of excellent female researchers requiring professional leave during their early and consolidating career phases is considerable and without this initiative many female research leaders would encounter considerable barriers to fund their research ideas in Europe.
For this reason we have composed an open letter and actively encourage researchers to add their signatures to congratulate and express our deepest gratitude to the ERC for its timely efforts and concrete actions in addressing gender inequalities across the European research landscape.
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