StGs have, ever since they were launched by the ERC in 2007, offered generous funding conditions. Indeed, in terms of eligibility rules (i.e. windows of two to seven years after PhD completion for applicants from all disciplinesFootnote 1), resource amounts (i.e. 1.5 million Euros), and duration periods (i.e. five years), StGs offer conditions that are not matched by any other individual grants on the nation- or Europe-level. Such funding conditions, and especially such resource amounts, immediately suggest that ERC evaluations will generate attention among scientists. Our findings, however, indicate that these evaluations were constructed as much more than resource allocation procedures by early-career scientists in Sweden. We will, as we move through our findings, see how StG evaluations were constructed as nothing less than status-bestowing events that could elevate scientists, departments, and, indeed, entire universities to new positions of recognition, largely based on beliefs in academia about the quality signals emitted by successful ERC applications. But, in light of such beliefs, StG evaluations also seemed to generate considerable stress and anxiety as early-career scientists, before and during those evaluations, successively became aware of the high stakes at play. This stress and anxiety commenced to build up when scientists heard about the ERC’s procedures; it accumulated as scientists got ready for the ERC’s evaluations; and it climaxed when scientists toughed it through the ERC’s final-stage appointments.
Learning the Ropes
Across our interviews, early-career scientists regularly reflected on the ways that other actors talked about ERC grants within research milieus. That talk was regarded as key for the socializing of scientists into particular perceptions of StGs early on during PhD programs.
Initial contacts Research funding was, according to our interviewees, a quotidian discussion topic in the offices and corridors of departments. While this topic seemed to be prevalent across a range of disciplinary domains, funding was perhaps most intensively discussed within departments that housed laboratory-driven, experiment-heavy, and, thus, resource-craving disciplines, such as physics, engineering, and the life sciences.
Throughout these research funding discussions, ERC grants stood out. “Well, as colleagues, we talk a lot about funding”, and “StGs are certainly not the only mentioned, but they are big… so you would always hear about them as a doctoral student” (Recipient 7 PE). Such discussions were, however, not neutral dialogs among actors, but normative conversations that quite clearly singled out some application practices as more desirable than others. Senior colleagues would, for instance, remind junior colleagues that the latter allegedly “needed to apply and get grants of the ERC’s range” (Recipient 23 LS) to achieve and secure prosperous careers in academia (see also van Arensbergen et al. 2014). StGs were, in this way, not only singled out as desirable grants, but they were also put forth as benchmarks that other grants would be compared to and measured against. These reminders about the supposed necessity of seeking and accessing ERC grants (or, at least, ERC-ranging grants) appeared to engender considerable pressure among early-career scientists because they most often aspired for a future in academia. And, adding to this pressure, many of our interviewees did not see much excitement in pursing non-academic careers (cf. Müller 2014). Scientists could realize their career aspirations, as senior colleagues emphasized, by accessing grants on an independent basis. Such emphases forged connections between grants and careers, and, by extension, generated a form of future-looking stress and anxiety that Fochler and Sigl (2018) have labelled “anticipatory uncertainty”.
While desirable, StGs were not perceived to be within the range of all early-career scientists in Sweden. Indeed, through recurring discussions and reminders, an elitist aura gradually seemed to be constructed around these grants within departments and universities. That aura was not only fueled by how the ERC’s funding was talked about (i.e. as necessary for prosperous careers in academia), but also by who talked about it:
“The very best scientists spoke about the ERC and its grants. It was nothing for us common, unstructured PhD students who did not know what we would be doing in the future… I would hear about the ERC because it was talked about as something cool and attractive, almost as if it was out of reach” (Recipient 3 LS).
StGs were thus seen as grants for the most promising PhD students, depicted as those who followed linear education paths and resolute career goals, which, in turn, are associated with an increased “projectification” (Torka 2018) of doctoral programs.
The elitist aura around ERC grants was not solely constructed by actors and practices in Swedish departments and universities. The ERC itself also appeared to play an important role in constructing that aura (cf. Edlund 2020; König 2017). To understand this role, the ERC must be situated against a background of Europe-level research funding policy developments. Up until the mid-2000s, Europe-level funding policy was generally regarded as rather unsupportive toward basic research, especially if such research could not promise to deliver any evident economic and/or societal benefits (Breithaupt 2003; Schiermeier 2001). Our interviewees asserted that, before the ERC was founded in 2007, Europe-level grants would best be described as “bureaucratic and controlled by politicians who thought they knew what researchers should do” (Recipient 11 LS). The ERC was consequently perceived as “a big thing because, suddenly, you could get a large amount of money to work freely on whatever you wanted” (Recipient 9 PE).
Those perceptions of freedom quickly seem to have augmented the desirability that early-career scientists in Sweden attributed to StGs. But this is, at the same time, perhaps not very surprising because scientists have often ascribed much recognition to peers who can freely pursue their own research topics, without being bound by expectations of economic and/or societal benefits (Abbott 1981). Such desirability only appears to have been further exacerbated throughout the ERC’s first few calls for applications, during which ERC top managers portrayed StGs as extremely scarce and highly exclusive grants (Myklebust 2012; Winnacker 2008). It is, along these lines, well-known that scarcity and exclusivity constitute important bases for the status of material possessions, as well as for the actors associated with such possessions (Bourdieu 1984; Lamont 1992). The ERC’s portrayals were communicated through articles, documents, and press releases, but also through speeches at various promotional activities targeted at early-career scientists:
“I had this ironic experience at [nation-level research funder], where there was a woman [from the ERC] telling us how things worked in Brussels, saying ‘yeah, they’ve [ERC top managers] set up this so that they’re gonna end up with way more applications than they [evaluation panelists] can handle, and nobody’s gonna get one [an StG], there’s gonna be very few’” (Runner-up 2 PE).
Such experiences seem to have cemented the construction of an elitist aura around ERC grants. While the exact correspondence between this aura and scientific quality was ambiguous (cf. Gould 2002; Podolny and Lynn 2009), our interviewees, nonetheless, sensed that department heads and university vice chancellors across Sweden soon embraced StGs as “quality stamps” (Recipient 20 SH). Heads and vice chancellors appeared to approach ERC grants as status halos that not only reflected the scientific quality of grant recipients, but that, by extension, also enabled the entirety of departments and universities to bask in StG-derived recognition. As such, this approach to ERC grants forged connections between StGs and the status of entire Swedish departments and universities.
The ‘quality stamp’-like aspects ascribed to ERC grants meant that StG applications were strongly encouraged by universities in Sweden. These universities took to organizing and supporting sub-units, often known as grants offices (Perrault 2009), that, among other tasks, compiled and disseminated information about the ERC’s funding. Representatives from such sub-units, as well as invited speakers, regularly held information sessions at departments in order to foster StG applications from early-career scientists. Those sessions appeared to generate mixed results, however. One result was the continued cementation of an elitist aura around ERC funding, as grants offices, when it all came around, only encouraged StG applications from certain scientists. Information sessions, as such, also resulted in discouraged early-career scientists:
“So, I went there [to an information session] with a colleague, and, after that, I thought ‘hell no, I am never applying for this [an StG]’… If anything, I became completely scared of applying… There was a lot of ‘you have to be the best of the best, and you have to be excellent in all areas, and you have to have the best idea in Europe, and you must be in the top five percent among all researchers in your field’… I thought that the ERC was probably not targeted toward me” (Recipient 3 LS).
Below, we will see how the elitist aura that was constructed around ERC grants resurfaced as our interviewees reflected on their perceptions of what merits viable StG applicants had to display.
Tacit barriers Although the ERC issued specific eligibility rules for StG applicants, it did not issue specific merit requirements for applicants. Instead, throughout official ERC communication, the role of original research ideas for successful funding applications was stressed. The characteristics of such ideas were not outlined, however (cf. Heinze 2008; Luukkonen 2012). Despite this lack of specific requirements, there seemed to exist quite clear perceptions among early-career scientists about what merits characterized viable StG applicants. The ERC expected, or so it was perceived among our interviewees at least, applications that were based on solid trails of particular publication practices:
“It [an StG application] is about showing many articles published in highly ranked journals, plus an idea that is original… But, if you have a weak CV, it does not matter how good your idea is… Your CV first needs to surpass a threshold that allows you to even become a serious participant” (Recipient 30 SH).
While this publication-based threshold was not formalized through any specific merit requirements, perceptions about such a threshold, nonetheless, appeared to exert considerable influence on the ways that many early-career scientists in Swedish universities worked with StG applications. These scientists worked assiduously on “CVs that would be enough”, although “they never felt enough in comparison to the CVs others had when they applied for StGs” (Runner-up 10 LS). This publication-based threshold was consequently associated with self-selection processes, which initially led many of our interviewees to refrain from applying for ERC grants (cf. Neufeld et al. 2013). Even early-career scientists who saw themselves as fairly successful seemed to abstain at first if they could not display particular publications:
“My postdoc abroad was stimulating because I learnt a lot of new stuff… But my postdoc was perhaps not so great publication-wise. I published, but not any of those high-impact articles that everyone reads. So, when I returned [to Sweden], it was as if I would not stand much chance [at the ERC]… Kind of ‘you have not produced’… At that time, I felt there was no purpose with applying [for an StG]” (Recipient 3 LS).
But perceptions about a publication-based threshold not only led scientists to refrain from applying for ERC grants. Early-career scientists who understood this threshold could, at times, also take on roles as “assessors” (Nästesjö 2021) who recommended other scientists to abstain from applying. “I would”, as one of our interviewees put it, “probably tell someone who has a mediocre CV that it is a waste of time for him or her to apply [for an StG]” (Recipient 17 LS). Another interviewee elaborated on how such recommendations could be formulated to colleagues:
“You actually have a rather concrete threshold with StGs, so, if you look at yourself in the mirror, there is this level of publishing that you must reach… I have tried to help people with [StG] applications, but, when it is clear that they have not reached a sufficient level, because it is quite high, I will tell those persons that ‘there is no purpose for you to apply’… You do not say it in that way obviously, but, if someone is far from the ERC threshold… Well, then there is no purpose” (Recipient 13 SH).
The self-induced selection processes, in which scientists perceived it would be wise for themselves to refrain from applying, and the other-directed selection processes, in which scientists instead perceived it would be wise for certain colleagues to abstain from applying, influenced how our interviewees approached their actual ERC applications. We flesh out these approaches in what follows.
Application rationales Across our interviews, early-career scientists working in Sweden described various approaches to StG applications. These scientists applied under different circumstances, as well as through various practices. All approaches, however, appeared to be guided by perceptions that pictured ERC applications as much more challenging than nation-level funding applications.
One group of interviewees seemed to work with their applications in quasi-scheduled ways that required careful planning and timing. “StGs had been on my radar for a while, and, with some key publications, you get this window of opportunity that increases your chance” (Recipient 15 LS). Here, it is important to emphasize that these interviewees already commanded small grants from Swedish funders. With such grants at hand, early-career scientists apparently found certain calm and refuge to plan and time their ERC applications.
Another group of interviewees instead appeared to approach their applications as trial-like attempts. But these interviewees also commanded small grants from funders in Sweden. Such grants allowed this group of scientists to approach their first few StG applications as training in “the art of writing a persuasive proposal” (Serrano Velarde 2018: 86): “I applied just to see what would happen, and I was thinking ‘I’ll never get it [an StG], but I’ll get the ERC referee comments at least’” (Recipient 5 PE). The obtained comments could, or so it was perceived at least, subsequently be used in rather instrumental ways to strengthen future StG applications.
A third group of interviewees could not afford to work with their applications as training. These interviewees supposedly applied to the ERC just as all of their funding was drying up. Such applications could thus be understood as last-minute attempts, which, by extension, embody the precarious aspects of short-term, project-specific grants that have now flourished in European academia for three decades or so (Fochler et al. 2016). Last-minute StG attempts would, for instance, be initiated against a backdrop of impending relocations:
“I was desperate for funding… I had an offer at a university in [geographically remote country from Sweden] that I was considering seriously, but, at the same time, I thought that this article we had just published might look good in an ERC StG application… So, I decided to apply, but I was very close to having to relocate my lab” (Recipient 21 LS).
Last-minute attempts could also be launched against a background of ending contracts:
“My employment contract was running out, and I only had funding left for a few more months… But I had published a recognized article around this time, and I had an idea for how to take that article further, so my feeling was that ‘I will never get a better chance at the ERC than now’” (Recipient 3 LS).
Regardless of approach, early-career scientists typically concurred in that StG applications were “a different ballpark” (Recipient 33 SH) than applications to nation-level funders. But what did this imply? Below, we will explore what the ERC’s ‘ballpark’ was perceived to entail for applications and evaluations.
Novel scenarios StG applications allegedly required a hyperbolic language that many of our interviewees were not familiar with after writing funding applications in Sweden. Drawing on cultural stereotypes, several scientists emphasized that it was “difficult for timid Swedes to brand themselves [through applications] out in Europe” (Runner-up 31 LS): research ideas allegedly had to be framed as “extremely interesting”, while researcher merits supposedly had to be portrayed as “particularly fitting” (Runner-up 34 PE). Such emphasis on ‘branding’
applications does not seem all too uncommon, as it could similarly be seen in the advice early-career scientists received from senior colleagues throughout Roumbanis’ (2019) study of grant information sessions at Swedish universities.
In addition to unfamiliar StG applications, the subsequent ERC evaluations supposedly involved much more challenging procedures than those associated with other funding applications. Our interviewees often singled out the final StG evaluation stage as uniquely challenging. Throughout this stage, all qualified scientists were invited to individual, on-site appointments with panelists at ERC headquarters in Brussels (Luukkonen 2012). These appointments, whose evaluation practices we will specify later on, consisted of presenting applications for and answering questions from StG panelists. Allegedly, “many applicants from Sweden make it to Brussels, but very few get funding afterward” (Recipient 21 SH).
Seeking to prepare those who had qualified to the final evaluation stage, SRC research officers organized one-day tutoring workshops in anticipation of Brussels appointments. Such workshops revolved around exercises in which early-career scientists presented applications for and answered questions from mock panelists. The latter had been instructed to “drill” (Recipient 22 PE) StG applicants as if they were on-site at ERC headquarters. These tutoring workshops appeared to generate intense affects among our interviewees as mock panelists provided a taste of the challenging questions that could, and perhaps would, be posed in Brussels. “I went to one of those SRC workshops, and everyone had their appointments booked for the next month… I could really feel and notice the stress and anxiety everywhere” (Recipient 15 LS). In what follows, we will show how this stress and anxiety among applicants seemed to be closely connected with the ways that the ERC organized its final-stage appointments.
Weathering the Procedures
Among early-career scientists from Swedish universities, StG appointments were generally understood as meticulously organized situations, presumably designed to evaluate the independence of applicants through challenging meetings with panelists. This organizing not only appeared to generate stress and anxiety, but its meticulousness, by extension, also seemed to veil the ERC’s entire final-stage appointments in an atmosphere of secrecy.
Formalized arrangements Our interviewees often described their appointments as “extremely methodical” (Runner-up 34 PE), not seldom bordering on “absurd” (Recipient 30 SH) and “surreal” (Runner-up & recipient 8 PE). Such descriptions primarily concerned the ERC’s pre-planned spatial boundaries that were meant to minimize interactions between competing StG applicants. These boundaries could supposedly be seen as soon as applicants arrived at the Madou Plaza Tower, where all appointments took place. “You are not even supposed to know who else will be there [at the Tower] that day, so everything is very secretive” (Recipient 17 LS). Allegedly, when StG applicants arrived, they were hurried to different waiting rooms by ERC administrators. These rooms were not chosen haphazardly. In fact, they seemed to be carefully populated with scientists from disparate and, thus, non-competing disciplinary domains. The ERC’s attempts at minimizing interactions between competitors appeared to engender an ”odd feeling” (Recipient 23 LS) among applicants who, nervously and silently, waited together for their individual slots (for a similar account, see Schiermeier (2014)). “It [the room] was like a dentist reception with people waiting for something they were not looking forward to” (Recipient 3 LS). Whereas the ERC strove to minimize interactions between competing StG applicants, it also sought to depersonalize interactions between applicants and administrators:
“Someone finally came and picked me up from the waiting room, ‘it’s your turn now’. So, this lady walked with me down a corridor to the actual meeting room, and she was not supposed to say anything, she was completely quiet, but she did actually give me a small, small supporting smile. ‘Well, someone is a little bit human at least’, that was what I felt” (Recipient 17 LS).
Our interviewees not only described their final-stage appointments as ‘extremely methodical’ in reference to the ERC’s spatial boundaries, but also in reference to the precise temporal boundaries that characterized interactions between applicants and panelists. Although StG applicants received detailed appointment instructions several months in advance, ERC panelists made sure to reiterate these instructions as early-career scientists entered their respective meeting rooms. “You would be greeted by strict rules that your slot is 25 minutes in total, and not 24 nor 26” (Recipient 27 PE). Scientists were first expected to present their applications for ten minutes in front of 12 to 16 StG panelists. “I had ten minutes to present, and not a second more than that… They [panelists] would pull the plug” (Recipient 17 LS). After presenting, applicants were expected to answer questions from ERC panelists for 15 minutes. “Even though I had the last slot of the day, panelists told me that they would pose questions for exactly 15 minutes to ensure fairness” (Runner-up 2 PE).
While these spatial and temporal boundaries inside the Madou Plaza Tower were deemed ‘absurd’ and ‘surreal’, many early-career scientists simultaneously utilized those boundaries to characterize StG appointments as impartial situations that were centered on research. Such spatial and temporal boundaries, by extension, provided the organizational framework for ERC panelist meetings that our interviewees experienced as stress-inducing and anxiety-ridden situations. Below, we will focus on a number of dimensions that appeared to generate much stress and anxiety during the actual meetings.
Uncomfortable encounters When early-career scientists in Sweden recounted their actual StG panelist meetings, three particular dimensions were deployed to construct these meetings as stress-inducing and anxiety-ridden situations. One dimension was a notion of panelist meetings that were associated with large consequences. While this notion had presumably been constructed on a successive basis, influenced by reminders from senior colleagues and exercises during tutoring workshops, as well as by portrayals from ERC top managers, our interviewees emphasized that, when their individual slots commenced, the high stakes at play suddenly became very palpable. “I entered the [meeting] room, and that felt special because, once it [the meeting] started, time was short and the stakes were high” (Recipient 23 LS), as an early-career scientist put it. Another scientist similarly mentioned that “the pressure was unbelievable, you know, a big part of your career is hanging on those specific 25 minutes” (Recipient 6 PE).
Another dimension that early-career scientists employed to construct StG panelist meetings as stress-inducing and anxiety-ridden situations was a notion of meetings conducted by respected actors. Across different disciplinary domains, our interviewees regularly asserted that some of Europe’s most lauded researchers were active as panelists at the ERC. That said, the exact identity of StG panelists was deliberately surrounded by secrecy (König 2019). The ERC’s administrators only released lists with chairperson names after all evaluation procedures had concluded. This meant that StG applicants entered their meeting rooms having heard loose rumors from senior colleagues about what panelists were in attendance during earlier years, as well as vague predictions from research officers about what ERC panelists would be in attendance now. Many of our interviewees described how that secrecy served to augment the stress and anxiety they already experienced in advance of their StG meetings. But these meetings also seemed to be reinforced as impartial situations that were centered on research when our interviewees described the secrecy surrounding ERC panelists. Scientists appeared to be taken aback when they eventually stood in front of StG panelists:
“There were Nobel Prize winners sitting there [in the meeting room] … That was a dream panel, the very best experts from my discipline were in that room… On top of that, one of my heroes was there, so I thought ‘whatever happens, [panelist name] has read my application, and that’s something I can live off for a long time’” (Recipient 21 LS).
Previous work on evaluations shows that the involvement of experts in evaluations tends to generate associations with informed and rigorous procedures (Allen and Lincoln 2004; de Nooy 1988). Such associations may very well have colored how our interviewees recounted their experiences from standing in front of the ERC’s panelists.
An additional dimension that early-career scientists in Sweden deployed to construct StG panelist meetings as stress-inducing and anxiety-ridden situations was, besides large consequences and respected actors, a notion of panelists who employed uncompromising practices. These practices were mainly connected to the challenging questions that ERC panelists supposedly posed after applicants had presented their proposals. StG applicants were, as soon as they had finished presenting, allegedly “bombarded with a quick succession of questions” from three designated panelists that “barely allowed you to catch your breath, let alone think or reflect” (Recipient 30 SH). As one of our interviewees succinctly put it, “you had to find your verbal composure quickly, simple and plain” (Runner-up 29 PE). These questions were not only challenging because of their fast-paced sequencing, but also due to their quasi-confrontational style:
“They [panelist questions] were not some pleasant chit-chat, they were all about trying to challenge you and see whether you got defensive or unsure… That seemed like the main purpose… I mentioned [during the meeting] that I recently got a grant with [company name] on a certain subtopic, which covered part of my StG proposal, and the next question was directly ‘so you don’t need the ERC grant anymore or what?’” (Recipient 23 PE).
In general, StG panelist meetings seemed to engender considerable stress and anxiety (a Nature (2013: 409) editorial labeled the ERC’s meetings as “remorseless”). Some of our interviewees, however, described their StG meetings as more or less challenging depending on what preliminary grades early-career scientists had obtained from panelists, who had read all written applications before the final-stage appointments. Now, the ERC did not release any preliminary grades, but there was, despite this, a perception among certain interviewees that high-graded applicants “were pretty safe and would most likely be funded”, while low-graded applicants “got a shot, even though they were unlikely to be funded” (Runner-up & recipient 8 PE). Middle-graded StG applicants supposedly faced the most challenging meetings, as ERC panelists probed, but struggled, to decide whether those applicants should be funded or not (cf. van Arensbergen and van den Besselaar 2012).
While some scientists perceived that StG panelist meetings could be more or less challenging depending on preliminary grades, two of our interviewees emphasized how most perceptions surrounding these meetings were rather exaggerated. The latter interviewees reflected on what they regarded as needless stress and unnecessary anxiety, which was jointly built up by senior colleagues, research officers, and ERC top managers in anticipation of final-stage StG appointments:
“In a way, I felt like they [StG appointments] were built up too much because everybody at home said that you had to prepare endlessly, that it was such a big thing, and it was almost a bit anticlimactic to get there [to Brussels] because it was just a presentation and a round of questions… It was obviously a big thing, and the instructions from the ERC were strict and so on, but people almost overprepared… Afterward, I said ‘I will never do this again’ because I would not be able to handle the pressure, but it was not the appointment itself that was so stressful, it was all the anxiety before” (Recipient 7 PE).
These appointments constituted the final stage for early-career scientists as applicants, but scientists who succeeded with their StG applications often appeared to assume roles from which those practices that allegedly made ERC evaluation procedures so stress-inducing and anxiety-ridden were reinforced. It was, for example, not uncommon for previously successful StG applicants to subsequently assume roles as ERC panelists (König 2019). In Sweden, successful applicants, moreover, tended to assume roles as speakers at information sessions and as mock panelists during tutoring workshops. These past applicants would thus go on to socialize future applicants into particular perceptions that reinforced the desirability of and the elitist aura around StGs, as well the meticulous organizing of ERC evaluations. Altogether, such perceptions contributed to constructing the final-stage StG appointments as apex-esque, crescendo-like status-bestowing events that, because of their high stakes, also engendered considerable stress and anxiety among early-career scientists in Swedish universities.