Wieland Staessens

Wieland Staessens works as Head of Sector in the Unit Physical Sciences & Engineering in the Scientific Dept. of the ERCEA. He supports top-level researchers to achieve their research goals and dreams by organizing and providing EU research funding.


Wieland Staessens

Wieland Staessens works as Head of Sector in the Unit Physical Sciences & Engineering in the Scientific Dept. of the ERCEA. He supports top-level researchers to achieve their research goals and dreams by organizing and providing EU research funding.

Brief information:

Department and position:

Scientific Department, Head of Sector in the Unit Physical Sciences & Engineering


How would you describe your work to someone who is entirely new to research and EU funding?

My work consists in supporting Europe’s top-level researchers to achieve their research goals and dreams by organizing and providing longer-term research funding at the EU level.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My normal working days are very diverse, as they range from coping with operational issues to discussing strategic aspects and handling staff-related matters.

Who or which other teams do you work closely with at the ERCEA?

I work closely with my fellow Heads of Sector and the Head of Unit for the day-to-day operations. For topics related to the evaluation of proposals and the monitoring of projects, I work closely with the other team members in my sector, such as Scientific Officers and assistants. In addition, I also participate several meetings and task forces cutting across Units and Departments in the Agency. In this sense, I am very fortunate because I get to work with a variety of colleagues every day.

What is your professional background?

Prior to working at the ERCEA, I was working as a researcher in theoretical high energy physics, more precisely in string theory.

Have you had any experience in research yourself? (depending on the answer to the background question).

I worked for more than 11 years as a researcher in high energy physics, focusing mostly on very theoretical problems in string theory, such as how to obtain realistic models for particle physics and cosmology through geometric constructions in string theory.

How long have you been with the ERCEA?

I started working at the ERCEA in January 2019, so in a couple of months I will be working 5 years at the ERCEA.

Have you previously also worked in other areas of the ERCEA?

Before becoming Head of Sector, I was the panel coordinator for the Synergy call in the Physical Sciences & Engineering domain.

What are the most frequent questions you are asked by the applicants?

This depends on the circumstances and the political context, as the most frequent questions that came up in the past years revolved around the participation of the UK in the ERC programme and whether applicants from the UK were eligible. Now that the UK has associated to the Horizon Europe programme, I reckon that that question will dissipate quickly. Other frequent questions often probe as to whether there exists a unique formula to write the perfect ERC proposal.

What tips would you always give to other researchers who are interested in an ERC grant?

The journey is more important than the destination: The ERC calls are very competitive funding schemes and you might not get an ERC grant at your first attempt, but as a researcher you learn a lot by writing the proposal and focusing your attention towards a longer horizon for your research. This process is extremely valuable to grow as a researcher and helps you to orient your research directions.

What tips do you have for EU advisors at research institutes or universities who advise on the ERC?

Encourage potential applications to get well-informed themselves in advance and to apply as early as possible. There is no need to wait in terms of career stage, as the perfect moment to apply to the ERC does not exist.

How does the cooperation with the Scientific Council look like?

At the Scientific Department, we are in constant contact with the Scientific Council regarding various operational aspects of the evaluation, such as the recruitment of panel members, which is entirely within the remit of the Scientific Council.

What is it like to work in the Agency and with the European Institutions?

It’s an interesting challenge to work in a multi-linguistic and multi-cultural environment, where you need to have strong personal and relational skills. The context of the Agency and the European Institutions allows you to achieve much greater things when working together and encouraging each other to achieve collectively what cannot be done as a single entity or individual.

What is special about working in the ERCEA?

The ERCEA has extremely dedicated and committed staff, which is all focused on accomplishing the mission of the ERC in funding and supporting frontier research. This dedication comes through in many different forms, and together with the strong expertise and background of the staff working at the ERCEA, it’s part of the successful formula that characterizes the ERCEA since its inception.

How do you assess the ERC's role in the Framework Programme for R&I, Horizon Europe?

I consider the ERC’s role as extremely important within the Horizon Europe Framework Programme: The ERC offers long-term funding for single PI’s and small PI teams (i.e. Synergy) to address challenging research problems that push forward the knowledge boundaries of blue sky research. ERC’s bottom-up approach where researchers propose their own topic of research and their own methodology to tackle the envisioned research challenge is key to its success and popularity in the scientific community. All these characteristics, in combination with its simplicity in calls, make the ERC a unique funder within the Framework Programme. In addition, ERC grantees do not only generate new knowledge, but their inventiveness is further encouraged via the PoC grants. In this way, the ERC is absolutely crucial in helping to formulate solutions to current global challenges, and equally indispensable to tackle future problems that the EU will face.

How many ERC grantees have you already supervised?

I have actively supervised 60 ERC grantees as Scientific Officer. In my capacity as Head of Sector, I oversee the daily operational aspects in terms of project monitoring for my sector comprising of mathematics, physics and Synergy Grants, while also dealing with the more formal and organizational aspects of project monitoring. In this respect, it is difficult for me to talk about supervision of ERC grantees and about precise numbers.

Do you remember any ERC projects in particular?

Throughout my daily work, I am often amazed by the creativity of ERC grantees and the outcome of numerous ERC projects, as well as by the broadness in topics the ERC funds. If I were to select one that is currently ongoing, the Synergy project QUANTUMBIRD comes to mind. In this project, the PIs try to understand how migratory birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field using quantum physics. For me, this project presents a perfect example of research generating fundamental knowledge by aiming to answer an understandable question: “how do birds find their way?”

What is a common misconception about the ERC that you think is important to clarify?

I do not know whether it can be categorized as a misconception, but the ERC is not merely a European funding agency. At its core the ERC is a research funding agency of researchers, by researchers, for researchers. The Scientific Council, consisting of 22 highly recognized scientists and scholars, determine the policies and strategies of the ERC in the form of an Annual Work Programme, while the ERCEA (ERC Executive Agency) executes the Work Programme through proposal evaluation and project management. The vast research experience of the scientific staff working at the Agency is essential in guiding the evaluation process and ensuring equal and fair treatment for every applicant and grantee. The ERC is not an administration, it is a scientific institute.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

The most enjoyable moments are those moments where you get to talk to applicants, grantees, panel members, etc. and exchange views on the ERC and its processes. It offers you the perspective from the outside world and triggers you to come up with new ideas to simplify a process or to solve a problem. If you can put something in action that simplifies the life of a Principal Investigator or helps a Principal Investigator to achieve their research goals, you experience a great deal of satisfaction in that.

What can you not live without at work?

The excellent team members in my sector who are devoting their time and energy to keep the operational standards of the ERCEA extremely high. Their passion for their work is truly inspiring and it also motivates me to do my work at the best of my abilities.

How many languages do you speak?

I speak ca. 6 languages (Dutch, English, Italian, French, Spanish and German).

What would make your work easier? Where do you see potential for improvement?

That’s a hard question. Many parts of my work deal with discussing, negotiating and reaching consensus with colleagues, and thus rely on using soft skills. Having more budget, resources and autonomy for the ERC would help a long way to tidy up these discussions faster.

How do you see the work of the NCPs: where do they add particular value and where do you think there might be areas for improvement?

NCPs form a crucial link in the funding chain, as they provide the indispensable connection between researchers on the one hand and the ERC on the other hand. It is crucial for potential applicants to have the right information at the right time and to have proper support in the application process for an ERC grant. Since the NCPs follow the European Commission funding opportunities closely, they have the most relevant information to pass on to potential applicants and support them in their application process.

Is there anything you would like to add ("take home message" for those who reads this interview)

Probably, the most important message to pass on is that by working together and relying on each other there are no boundaries to what we can achieve, both in the world of science and in the world of research funding, in order to build the knowledge society needed to address our future challenges.