As you prepare and polish your proposal, there are important things to take into consideration. Keep on reading to understand what happens after you click “submit” and what is going on behind the scenes. The ERC evaluation process has 7 phases:

1. Recruiting the panel members

The panel members are the most important element of the evaluation process. They are top specialists in their field, and they are able to work as generalists. Do not forget that the ERC panels are very interdisciplinary. They are the ones who enable the ERC to evaluate the thousands of proposals that are submitted every year.

Panels work on alternate years. This means that most panel members are re-invited to the panel from the previous time and around 25% of panel members are renewed at each call. The Scientific Council, the governing body of the ERC, selects and invites new panel members. The recruitment for both former and new panel members starts a year and half before the submission deadline. This ensures their availability.

A couple of months before the deadline, the scientific officers ask the panel members for more details on their expertise. This helps the ERC address the potentially large conflict of interest that might completely exclude evaluators from the call (e.g., they have been involved in the preparation of the proposal or they have submitted a proposal themselves).

2. Preliminary allocation

The deadline has passed and the submissions are in. Then, the ERC contacts the panel members to address any type of conflict of interest. This may exclude them from reviewing a proposal and/or from being present in the room when a proposal is discussed. A reason for conflict of interest could be because: they are from the same host institution, they have collaborated in the past, maybe they are rivals, or they had a mentorship relationship.

In addition, applicants are able to nominate up to “3 excluded reviewers”. If a panel member is in this list, then we make sure they also leave the room. Once this is set, the panel chairs carry out (remotely), a preliminary allocation of proposals to panel members. This is done using information in part A of your proposal (your abstract, the descriptors, and the keywords you have provided). At this point, the ERC does not have access to B1. The panel chairs typically assign 4 panel members to each proposal. In summary, the ERC knows what you asked for, what expertise they have, and they try to match it in the best possible way.

If applicants have called a secondary panel (a.k.a cross-panel review), the panel chair assesses if this is really necessary. If the proposal is too far out of the expertise of the panel, the panel chair is allowed to ask for a panel transfer. This occurs after a very careful discussion between two panel chairs to ensure that the panel transfer is as fair as possible.

3. The initial panel chair meeting

Panel chairs meet about 10 working days after the deadline. In this meeting, they meet with the ERC president⁠—who gives a general overview of all the issues that could arise during the evaluation and highlights important topics for the Scientific Council members: scientific integrity, open access, unconscious bias, etc. The panel chairs can ask questions and they can discuss among themselves. This meeting occurs before being separated to discuss with their panel’s scientific officers the details of the step 1 meeting (duration, agenda, etc). Also, any final allocations of proposals to the panel members are completed. 

The ERC tries to organize this meeting very soon to maximize the time the panel members have to review the proposals. ERC panel members need this time: they receive 20-45 proposals, depending on the panel.

4. The remote phase

In the first remote phase, panel members read at home only part B1 of the proposal, which includes the project synopsis, your CV, and your track record. They are asked to focus on feasibility. You can find more information on how to write B1 here. Remember: panel members read between 20-45 proposals, so get them excited about your idea and make their life as easy as possible.

On the information for applicants, you can find a list of questions that panel members need to answer then they assess your proposal. You can also find these questions here. It is important that you make this information easily accessible to them. In this phase, panel numbers must write a review for each proposal and mark the project and the applicant on a scale of 1 to 5. The applicants do not see these scores, but the other panel members do, along with their written reviews. These scores are also used by the ERC to compile a ranking list that is given to the panel members at the start of the step 1 meeting.

5. Step 1 meeting

In this meeting, panel members meet for the first time. Some people are more positive with their scores, others are more negative. The expertise of one evaluator may be closer to the proposal than that of another evaluator, this is why the panel has to discuss every proposal as one. Through passionate and very detailed discussions, the panel calibrates itself and finally decides which people they want to see for an interview. Proposals that score an A, will automatically procede to step 2; those that score a B or a C are rejected.

Applicants will receive the decision of the panel in the form of a panel comment as well as all the reviews without the scores. Applicants have 1 month to redress. Please keep in mind that the scientific disagreement with the text of the reviews is not a reason for redress. You should redress only if you notice that the ERC has made a procedural mistake. How many proposals move on to the next process? There is one administrative restriction rule: “maximum 3x the budget”. Basically, proposals whose collective budget is 3x the budget that the panel will eventually allocate will make it to step 2. This is a restriction to equalize the chances across all panels for those who come for an interview.

6. Remote reviewers

For the proposals that move on to step 2, the panel strongly depends on precise feedback from the real experts in the field. This is why panel members spend at least 2 hours at the end of every “step 1 meeting” to agree on the names of remote reviewers, who will be sent the proposals to read at home. Around 12 people per proposal are suggested, the ERC contacts them to have at least 3 remote reviewers per proposal, allowing for disagreements.

From statistics, the number of remote reviewers does not influence your success rate nor is it correlated with the quality of your proposal. What is important for you to know is that when reviewers are invited, they decide if they are the right people for the job based solely on your abstract (they don’t see your name). So it is very important that your abstract is clear and well written. This will facilitate the ERC to get more appropriate reviewers for your proposal.

In the second remote phase, which takes place between step 1 and 2 panel meetings, panel members and remote reviewers alike receive both parts of the proposal, part B1 and B2. In this remote phase, they look at methodology.

7. Step 2 meeting

This is the fun part according to all panel members: they get to meet the applicants and actually discuss science with them. After each applicant’s interview, the panel has to decide whether the proposal will get an A or a B. An A means that the proposal should be funded if an unlimited budget were available. B means that even if there was an unlimited budget, this proposal should not be funded. Unfortunately, only the top “A”’s  are funded. Once the ranking list is finalized, panel members summarize again the decision in the form of a panel comment, whether the proposal has been funded or not.

Many people don’t know that, by this point, each proposal has been discussed by the whole panel for around 1.5 hours (in addition to all the time spent remotely by both panel members and remote reviewers). If your proposal does not get funded, please take all feedback into account because it will really help your future applications. At the end of the step 2 meeting, the ERC says “goodbye” to those panel members that have already participated in the review process 4 times. To others, the ERC says “see you again in 2 years”. And then, a new cycle begins.

This information was extracted from an ERC video, you can watch it here.