Humanities and social sciences within the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 4, 2014

The European Research Council issued a press release today on the number of applications for its Starting Grants – a prestigious grant of up to € 1,5 Million for scholars who have recently received their PhD degree. Here’s a paragraph that struck me:

In this call, the distribution by the three ERC domains was as follows: 1494 proposals were submitted in ‘Physical Sciences and Engineering’, 1030 in ‘Life Sciences’ and 748 in ‘Social Sciences and Humanities’.

So if we calculate the shares of the applications, we get this:
Physical sciences and engineering: 45,6%
Life Sciences: 31,5%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 22,9%.

Compare this with the budget shares that the ERC has allocated to those three areas (see ERC documentation p.13):
Physical sciences and engineering: 44%
Life Sciences: 39%
Social Sciences and Humanities: 17%.

Can someone please explain this to me? Or should we perhaps simply interpret this as another sign of the worsening conditions for research in the social sciences and humanities in the European Union?



Kenny Easwaran 04.04.14 at 3:20 pm

Do we expect some sort of strict proportional representation of funded grants to applications? Otherwise, this doesn’t seem terribly disproportionate – if grants are funded based on merit, we should expect some variance from year to year in which fields get funded in greater proportion than their applications and which get funded in lower proportion. The overrepresentation of life sciences does seem somewhat extreme, but it’s not totally obvious what we should expect in a sample size of 3000 applicants, and a (presumably smaller) unknown number of recipients.

Also, are all the grants the same size? Or is there an expectation that some areas will need more funding than others?


Sasha Clarkson 04.04.14 at 3:26 pm

Firstly, the number of applications is much greater than the number of grants. Given how different these disciplines are, one would not expect the success rates to be the same across the board.

Secondly, the budget proportions are not necessarily proportion to the number of successful applicants: I would have thought that the cost of research into the first two categories is greater than the cost of research into social sciences and humanities?

” The funding requested must be fully justified by an estimation of the real project
(p13, second link)


Charles Forgy 04.04.14 at 3:43 pm

I have to agree with Sasha Clarkson’s second point. Experimental research in the physical and life sciences can get very expensive very quickly. A great (if extreme) example is a recently reported result in Nature Chemistry, where researchers needed several milligrams of californium. The californium was paid for and produced by the U.S. government, but it cost them over a million dollars for that tiny sample. Maybe the ERC feels that those figures will finance roughly equal numbers of researchers?


nick 04.04.14 at 3:48 pm

I’m genuinely shocked, from the perspective of a North American humanities PhD employed at a North American research university, that SO MUCH money is potentially available to the social sciences and humanities….


Marcus Pivato 04.04.14 at 5:16 pm

The relevant data is not the budget shares allocated to the three areas, but rather, the number of successful applications in each of the three area, relative to the total number of applications. In other words: the application success rate in each area.

Even with identical success rates in the three areas, it is easy to explain vast disparities in budget shares, because the average grant size is different; some kinds of research are just much more expensive than others. Experimental research in the the natural and life sciences often requires expensive laboratory equipment (e.g. electron microscopes, PCR machines, particle accelerators) and laboratories staffed with full-time lab assistants and technicians. Research in more theoretical areas (e.g. mathematics, theoretical physics) or in humanities such as history or philosophy requires an order of magnitude less money. Social sciences come somewhere in between; obviously empirical work can be expensive (especially if it involves hundreds of experimental subjects, or large-sample surveys). But it is still probably less expensive than buying a mass spectrometer or renting time on the Arecibo radio telescope.

In fact, given that the budget shares are roughly comparable to the shares of applications, and given that social science/humanities grants are generally smaller, I wouldn’t be surprised if the success rate for grants in the social sciences and humanities is actually higher than it is in the natural and life sciences.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.04.14 at 5:21 pm

just to clear up what I believe is a confusion: the grant sizes are exactly the same for all starting grants – namely 1500.000 Euro’s – except if you apply for less, which no-one does.


Bernard Yomtov 04.04.14 at 5:36 pm

I’m having a hard time understanding the complaint here.

Just because the system is divided into three areas, is it necessarily the case that they are, or should be, equal in size?

Further, though it’s a different matter, the fact that all grants are the same size strikes me as strange, for reasons given by Marcus Privato at @5.


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 5:46 pm

I think there’s a right to complain if the success rates in one particular area are persistently lower than in others. This isn’t about the cost of research or the quality of the projects. This is about the blatant and continued undervaluing of the Social Sciences and the Humanities.


Bruce Wilder 04.04.14 at 6:36 pm

The clever political move for the Humanities would be to get themselves tacked onto Life Sciences (“Life Sciences & Humanities” has a certain ring, don’t you think?) instead of the lead balloons, which are the Social Sciences. You’d think philosophers, at least, would understand the importance of categories. ;-)


geo 04.04.14 at 6:57 pm

Just curious: what are the costs of research in the humanities, apart from salary, travel, books, office supplies?


Ingrid Robeyns 04.04.14 at 7:03 pm

Here’s an argument one could make:

(1) there is no reason to believe that the quality of the top 10% of the applications in any of those groups should be different than in the other groups. The top 10% is relevant since only they will have a chance to get funded (on average funding success rates in those grant schemes is lower than 10%).

(2) these grants are meant to give junior, often untenured, post-PhD scholars the possibility to develop their own line of research, by buying themselves out from part of their teaching and/or admin responsibilities, and by giving them money to hire PhD students and postdocs, organize conferences, etc. For some of them, it simply gets them a job. In addition, there is a 25% overhead for the university.
[additional claim that I believe to be true, yet that should however be checked: these grants are not meant for major infrastructural investments (there are other grant schemes for that, at least at the national levels, possibly also at the EU level). ]

(3) Given (2), it is thus equally important for scholars from these various disciplines to stand an equal chance in receiving such a grant. In fact, according to some sources it is easier for some disciplines outside the humanities and social sciences to attract funding from ‘third sources’ (companies, patient groups, etc.), so it may even relatively be more important for Humanities & Social Sciences scholars to have a chance at an ERC grant.

(4) it has been a political decision to allocate the budget between the three groups as 44%-39%-17%

(5) if we want to give scholars in each discipline an equal chance of having their research ideas funded, we would expect that the division (as under 4) would be roughly equal to the submission shares.

(6) If (5) is a conclusion we endorse, then the submission shares as they can be calculated from the press release show that there is overfunding for the life sciences, and underfunding for the humanities and social sciences.

(7) If (6) is correct, this adds to all the other worries expressed on this blog and elsewhere about the worsening of the position of the social sciences and the humanities.


TM 04.04.14 at 7:03 pm

6: 1.5 million seems like a lot in most circumstances. Why shouldn’t many of the applicants apply for less than the max? Of course I know the answer, it’s a game theory experiment and the subjects are all asocial egocentric academics.


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 7:10 pm

The biggest cost of research in the humanities is human capital, which imho should never be bracketed with office supplies.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.04.14 at 7:10 pm

TM: if you fund 80% of your own salary for 5 years, and add 2-3 PhD students and 2 postdocs, plus some conferences, data gathering, archival work etc. plus 25% overhead, I think you’re almost there. Moreover, given the tight funding of many European universities (the vast majority of which are public institutions), the administrators may virtually force the applicants to apply for the maximal amount, since they need/want the overhead.


Metatone 04.04.14 at 7:12 pm

@â„¢ @12

I think it’s actually just 1500


geo 04.04.14 at 7:15 pm

@13: The biggest cost of research in the humanities is human capital

Meaning … ?


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 7:17 pm

(8) If the “sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence,” then there is no valid reason for not allocating the budget proportionately to the number of applicants.


JanieM 04.04.14 at 7:23 pm

I think it’s actually just 1500

Maybe you’re seeing this: 1500.000 Euro’s.

But see the OP: € 1,5 Million.

Not everyone uses the system we use in the US for marking the decimal place and the thousands (etc.) divisions.


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 7:24 pm

@geo: all the skills, competencies and expertise of the team members. If, for instance, I want to study processes of change in cultural production across Europe, I need a team with complementary language proficiencies. If I also want to study those processes diachronically, I need expertise across historical periods. If the project requires a database for e.g. social network analysis or corpus analysis, I need someone with those particular skills to build and maintain the database and do the analyses.


otto 04.04.14 at 7:27 pm

Myself, I think the size of the grants are much too high for most social scientists I know, where a 75k spending grant plus a one year buy out would solve most of their research needs. They’d do well to cut the grants by 75% and multiply the number of grants by four…


Z 04.04.14 at 7:29 pm

Dear Ingrid,
What you wrote was at odd with my experience with the ERC (I’m not part of a grant but several members of my department are) so I checked the report and it confirmed my recollections. The provisional budget you report is the provisional budget for all Frontier grants whereas the breakdown in applications is only for the starting grants. So it might be that if you compute all applications the discrepancy remains or is greater, but one might also observe the same discrepancy with the number of successful applications by domain strictly proportional to the number of applications by domain if it turned out to be true that the ERC grants proportionally more consolidator and advanced grants and less starting grants to the Humanities and Social Sciences (and one might even imagine a completely scientifically sound explanations for that suggestion; it does not sound unreasonable to me that reaching the peak of one’s subfield takes comparatively longer on average in Literature or History than in Math or Theoretical Physics). Note also that the not very large discrepancy between provisional budget and number of applications could also be explained quite naturally if it turned out that self-selection was more acute in some fields than in others (if only the very best of the very best apply in Chemistry, then the proportion of the budget devoted to Chemistry compared to the proportion of applications in Chemistry will be very high). Once these two factors taken into account, and considering the percentages are indicative and the discrepancy really not that large, I don’t think one should jump to sinister conclusion absent more facts.

That being said, purely at the anecdotal level, the ERC is seen in my corner of Academia as rather hard science friendly (and also as a real pain, but that’s another topic), so if it is friendly to us, it must be unfriendly to someone.

Also, but OT, if you want to be shocked by something in the report, you can have a look at their policy towards the deduction of parental leave from the qualifying period for a starting grant: 18 months per children for women, the actual amount of parental leave taken for men. Say what? What is the presupposition here that justifies such a differential treatment? What was wrong with “the actual amount of leave taken” (perhaps times a multiplier to be more family friendly) for both gender? I felt insulted both as a father of two children born in quite rapid succession at a critical period of my career and on behalf of my wife, who apparently is considered by the ERC to be not being devoted to her work for 18 months, even if she worked full-time the day her mandatory maternity leave ended.


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 7:36 pm

Ingrid Robeyns is right. Here in Belgium, 1,5 million covers the salaries of four PhD students (4 years) and a postdoc (3 years) or 2 PhD students and 2 postdocs; a small travel budget for each team members; a few workshops and a conference. If most of your material (e.g. large corpora of historical texts) is only available in digital form through expensive databases charging tens of thousands of euros in subscription costs, you will have to find another way to access those sources, because you simply can’t afford them without sacrificing some of the precious expertise of your team.


Z 04.04.14 at 7:41 pm

just to clear up what I believe is a confusion: the grant sizes are exactly the same for all starting grants – namely 1500.000 Euro’s – except if you apply for less, which no-one does

No, no, that’s not true: that’s the maximal regular amount but up to another 500,000 euros can be allocated if the project involves exceptional costs; those being restricted to the costs of relocating the project and the purchase of costly equipments. Same with even larger bonus for consolidator and advanced grants. So, again with the emphasis that the percentages you report are indicative anyway and for all type of grants (not just starting), the discrepancy could also reflect the presupposition on the part of the ERC that projects in Life Sciences will on average more often ask for these supplementary funds than projects in Humanities (a reasonable presupposition).

I’m really not sure there is enough to suspect foul play here (but that should not be read as an endorsement of the situation of the Humanities, which is really horrendously dire).


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 7:48 pm


Jake 04.04.14 at 7:57 pm

(1) there is no reason to believe that the quality of the top 10% of the applications in any of those groups should be different than in the other groups.

The job market and funding environment are very different for humanties Ph.D.s and for science Ph.D.s, no?

At the top end good research proposals in a field may have already been funded by other means; at the bottom end new Ph.D.s in a field may have poor enough job prospects that applying for a 1.5M € grant that they aren’t going to get is the best way to spend their time.

Hard to say which of these effects dominates but it’d be a pretty big coincidence if they exactly cancelled each other out…


geo 04.04.14 at 7:59 pm

Marianne @19: Thanks. That particular example sounds to me more like social science than humanities, but I know these are just matters of bureaucratic classification.

Z@23: the situation of the Humanities … is really horrendously dire
Do you mean that the humanities are sadly underfunded, or that far too much of contemporary scholarship in the humanities is dreck?


Shirley0401 04.04.14 at 8:02 pm

Chipping in from the US of A, welcome to the club.
Since the disciplines lack direct and unambiguous connections to material productivity and/or profitability, I’m surprised the percentages aren’t even lower.


Marianne Van Remoortel 04.04.14 at 8:07 pm

@geo, the example is taken from my own experience and I’m a C19 literary scholar (who occasionally borrows methods from the Social Sciences).


Z 04.04.14 at 8:12 pm

Marianne Van Remoortel,

Thanks for digging the relevant statistics up. To summarize them: in terms of number of grants allowed (not percentage of the amounts), both in 2012 and 2013 the Life Sciences got a good deal, the Physical Sciences got a neutral deal and the Humanities got a raw deal, and each year by about exactly the same discrepancy as what is previewed for this year. Based on these numbers, one can I think safely discard my suggestions that it might be due to exceptional costs being budgeted for the hard sciences or for relatively more senior grants being granted to the Humanities. So thanks again Marianne for showing this.

That said, the statistics make for a really interesting read and a very striking fact they show is that these two years, institutions in the UK received almost as many grants in Humanities as all the other European Countries combined (the difference is nowhere near as striking in other fields). This does indeed suggest huge problems in the attribution of grants in the Humanities, or an incredible pressure on UK social scientists to apply or most likely both (the alternative, that the UK has as many outstanding social scientists as the rest of Europe combined seems highly implausible to me, but let’s record it as a logical possibility).


Z 04.04.14 at 8:15 pm

geo@26 Of course, I meant the former!


Ingrid Robeyns 04.05.14 at 5:46 am

I second what Z says in 29. Thanks, Marianne Van Remoortel!

Z (or can I call you with your real name – I am not sure what you prefer…) — you are right about the striking share of humanities & social science (HSS) grants that go to the UK. I actually wouldn’t want to exclude the hypothesis that *percentage wise* there are more outstanding HSS-scholars in the UK than elsewhere in Europe, but it would be rather implausible that that effect would be so big as to explain this striking outcome. I don’t know what else is going on, perhaps something like that they may invest more in training and coaching of their candidates?


Paul 04.05.14 at 6:42 am

Hang on… is the assertion that you should fund an area proportionate to the number of people who want to work in it? That’s just crazy. You can argue that social sciences should have 90%, 50%, 10% of the budget or whatever. But society has no obligation to provide social scientists (or anyone else) with a living, just because it’s what they want to do.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.05.14 at 7:22 am

Paul @32: no, there is no such assertion. Rather, this tread is part of a much wider discussion on the valuation and declining funding of the humanities, and gives yet another indication of that fact. There are plenty of arguments in that wider debate about why the humanities are important in themselves, and for society. There is no need to repeat that each and every time, but the assertion you mention also doesn’t follow from that discussion.


Zamfir 04.05.14 at 8:32 am

My wife used to work for the NWO in the Netherlands, and this pattern seemed typical from what I have heard. When grants are field-specific grants, humanities grants lots of applications per grant, while hard sciences get far less, and medical related fields even less. People in those fields have more funding options, so they are less likely to send in proposals when they consider their chances small.

That reflects on mixed-field grants (my wife ran a mixed program). If those give out grants in proportion to the number of applicants per field, then the program will attract lots of humanities proposals, and far less from other fields. The latter applicants move to programs with better odds.


Tim Worstall 04.05.14 at 8:53 am

“Given (2), it is thus equally important for scholars from these various disciplines to stand an equal chance in receiving such a grant. ”

Umm, why?

You’re entirely right that it’s a political decision as to how to allocate such research grants across disciplines. But why shouldn’t that political decision be that certain disciplines are more likely to produce the public good of useful knowledge (the entire reason for there to be tax derived funding at all) than others?

To be obtusely extreme, why shouldn’t a life sciences attempt to produce a decent sleeping sickness treatment have priority over a humanities attempt to redefine the patriarchal structure of society in Jane Austen’s novels?


Haftime 04.05.14 at 10:00 am

Ingrid, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call out Paul for not seeing those data as indicative of a decline in public support for the humanities. For starters, it is only for 1 year, and secondly, if you look up the data for previous years, the evidence for a systematic downwards trend in proportion of grants or the relative success rate is scanty. It is true that this year’s numbers are slightly lower than the previous, but looking at the slightly longer dataset for advanced grants as well it is hard to make the case for any sustained decline. I am sure that national research funding data will bear out your argument, but I don’t think the ERC do.

I’d also be wary of using acceptance rates as too indicative as it’s true (in the UK) at least, that there can be a fair bit of preselection, in addition to Zamfir’s points. (A further difficulty is that the application rates between areas is going to be largely shaped by national policies – the overall size of an area will be mainly due to historic national governmental support, I guess.)

I am somewhat concerned by your point (3) – is it right that the direction of academic research should be directed by industry? After all, in the obvious counter example in the SSH (economics), commentors on this blog have been vociferous in denouncing the strong links between academia and industry. I realise this is a step beyond your argument, but it seemed to have been put in as almost an aside, whereas I think it merits more consideration.

Here’s the data I could find for the past 4 years

Applications % Accepted % Relative Success Rate
2014 45.6 31.5 22.9 44 39 17 0.96 1.24 0.74
2013 44.6 32.2 23.1 43.9 37.6 18.5 0.98 1.17 0.80
2012 43.4 34.9 21.7 44.2 37.1 18.7 1.02 1.06 0.86
2011 41.4 35.3 23.3 46.2 35.2 18.6 1.12 1.00 0.80

Advanced grants of the ERC too.

Applications % Accepted % Relative Success Rate
2013 44.6 32.2 23.1 43.9 37.6 18.5 0.98 1.17 0.80
2012 44 36 24 45 36.75 18.2 1.02 1.02 0.76
2011 40.2 34.4 25.3 45.6 36.4 18 1.13 1.06 0.71
2010 45 31 24 46 37 17 1.02 1.19 0.71
2009 47 32 21 44 38 18 0.94 1.19 0.86


Sasha Clarkson 04.05.14 at 11:10 am

This debate raises more questions than it can hope to answer. For those arguing for equality: why, for example, should social sciences and humanities be lumped together?

Should the direction of academic research be directed by industry? Perhaps not by individual companies, but society has to make some evaluation as to the benefits of particular fields of study. What, if anything, does a particular area of study add to society as a whole? That question has to be answered in part by those who are NOT participating in that research, and don’t have a personal interest in the outcome. What is the value to society of people spending their time analysing literature versus, say, playing computer games? Any instant answer to that question is likely to be based on prejudice I’d have thought.

Then there’s also the question of the relative difficulty of different fields, and whether there should be positive discrimination to encourage people who pursue perceived socially useful but difficult options? (Or even socially useful but boring options?)

…. lights blue touch-paper and retires to safe distance! ;)


Bernard Yomtov 04.05.14 at 3:34 pm


there is no reason to believe that the quality of the top 10% of the applications in any of those groups should be different than in the other groups.

That depends on what you mean by “quality,” doesn’t it?

As Tim Worstall points out, it could be that the budget-makers deem life science research more valuable than social science/humanities research. That might have nothing to do with the relative merit of proposals from a pure academic point of view, and everything to do with the value of possible results.


praisegod barebones 04.06.14 at 1:54 pm

Lots of people seem to be basing their views on guesses, speculations or unargued assertions about the purpose of these grants.

Since this is public money, there ought to be some kind of public statement as to what these grants are being issued for (and if there isn’t, that’s an entirely different kind of problem.)

If there is some kind of publicly stated rationale, I suspect it has had more thought put into it, and perhaps even more actual data about the economic benefits of particular kinds of research than people’s Sunday afternoon ruminations are likely to have. Now it might be that the goals are bad goals; and it might be that there’s a mismatch between the goals and what’s actually happening; and it might be possible to make a prima facie case in favour of those views. But I can’t see that a conversation containing comments like ‘far too much contemporary scholarship in the humanities is dreck’ is really going to move us far in the direction of the truth on either matter.


Luc 04.07.14 at 4:30 pm

I’ve just noticed that the answer is on the wikipedia page of the ERC…

The ERC ScC divided the full range of scientific disciplines into three major domains, with budgets allotted to each based on the weighted average distribution of national funding in scientifically strong countries worldwide: 34% for life sciences, 14% for social sciences/humanities and 39% for physical/engineering sciences.


praisegod barebones 04.07.14 at 7:57 pm

Who’d a thunk it. (Not me, tbh.)


Mario 04.07.14 at 8:17 pm

The ERC ScC divided the full range of scientific disciplines into three major domains, with budgets allotted to each based on the weighted average distribution of national funding in scientifically strong countries worldwide

An ingenious way of passing the blame on to someone else!


Bernard Yomtov 04.07.14 at 10:00 pm

Does anyone know how many potential applicants – recent Ph.D.’s, – there are in these areas? Or have I missed it?

The ratios seem to have some bearing on the fairness of the budget allocations.

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