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The Black Hole

Leveling the playing field for young female researchers in Europe

Changes to eligibility rules should be adopted by any agency looking to encourage women to continue in science.


I attended a meeting in Cambridge last month about European Research Council funding for early career researchers. One mode of providing “start-up” funding in Europe is to award personal fellowships to new and early career investigators that covers salaries and research. It is becoming more and more common for new researchers (myself included) to seek such funding to take up an independent research position.

The topic du jour in those I spoke with in the 100+ audience was the eligibility window of these awards. For starting grants, you can apply between two and seven years following your PhD, but you have to take a one-year break from applying if you are unsuccessful (although the ERC does permit highly rated but non-funded applicants to re-apply). Perhaps not surprising to our readers, the people in the room were mostly life scientists and mostly right up against the eligibility window (e.g., 6-7 years post-PhD). Fortunately for me, I remain eligible for a little longer and will wait until the next round to submit an application (yes NSERC, this is what happens when you limit eligibility – people wait until the last possible, strongest CV moment to apply)

One thing that I was a little surprised to see but also very happy about was the proportion of females in the room (I guessed 50-60%). There is certainly considerable interest at the postdoctoral level to obtain grant money to begin one’s own research group. Of course, our readers have heard, and joined in our lamentations, about how these figures don’t seem to translate into equal numbers of young female group leaders, so what is the ERC doing about it?

At this point I was enormously pleased to hear about the following policy from panelist Daniel St. Johnston who has chaired panels with the ERC:

“For Starting and Consolidator Grants, the eligibility window will be extended by 18 months per child up to a maximum of 4.5 years in total for the grant (i.e. for 3 or more children).”

The interesting part about this policy is not that parents get an extra window of time to apply for grants, but that the policy for moms and dads is handled differently. Whilst moms get 18 months irrespective of how much physical time they actually take off, dads have to document the amount of parental leave taken. This is perhaps one of the most progressive funding policies I’ve seen over the years and should be adopted by any agency looking to encourage women to continue in science. It does not give an advantage to women that do not have children, can be equally beneficial to men that take off time to nurture their children, and accounts for the physical demands of pregnancy and motherhood. Moreover it does all of this without substantially altering the number of applications that will be received. Way to go ERC.

In 2015, we hope to focus some more of our articles and attention on how to address this very serious problem of being a postdoc parent – for now, feel free to browse our related articles and our recent series from Jenn and Erika:

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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