Last month, the Grants Office organised a discussion involving experts who have won grants from the European Research Council (ERC) or served on evaluation panels. Here we distil the most important insights that emerged and supplement them with our own thoughts.
ERC funds ground-breaking basic research in all disciplines. The various grants, open to individual researchers or teams, are highly competitive with success rates typically <15%. Although the criterion for success – scientific excellence of the proposal and researcher/team – is simple in principle, it is not always easy to put into practice. How do reviewers gauge the excellence of proposed research? How do researchers articulate excellence in their proposals? We posed these and other questions to four experts1 who have successfully obtained ERC grants or served as evaluators. Below is a distillation of the key insights to emerge from their responses, along with our own thoughts.
ERC is different
By privileging bottom-up research, ERC lets you do what you want to, what really motivates you. The size of the grants – between 1.5 and 2.5 m Euro for the individual ones and 10 m Euro for the Synergy Grant – means that you can invest the time and resources needed to pursue your grand idea. For early-career researchers, such funding allows the establishment of an independent research group. Even though national funders such as the Swedish Research Council (VR) prioritise basic research, they tend to be less tolerant of risk than ERC.
The ERC evaluation process, involving two review steps followed by an interview, is more involved and demanding than many other funders. The evaluation panels are made up of leading experts who have a very good understanding of the state of the art. This is reflected in the assessment reports, which tend to be fair, comprehensive, help interpret the decision and – in the case of rejection – can inform the development of stronger proposals. Indeed, most find the process of developing an ERC proposal rewarding irrespective of the eventual decision.
ERC conceives of impact in terms of a substantial conceptual and/or methodological advance that leads to a step change in understanding. The assumption is that such advances will, sooner or later, be of benefit to society, something that borne out by ERC’s analyses of the impact of funded projects. Therefore, unlike many other funders, there is no explicit expectation of demonstrable policy-related, technological or economic impact. This liberates researchers involved in basic research from the temptation to exaggerate the societal impact of their proposed work or to resort to vagueness.
The idea is everything
Incremental gains are the bread and butter of scientific advance and what most researchers produce at most times. Occasionally, however, science advances via leaps a là Thomas Kuhn. It is research that breaks new ground, if not quite Kuhnian revolutions, that ERC is interested in. An ERC-friendly idea is one that has the potential to revolutionise a given field of research and beyond, and it is preferable to err on the side of ambition rather than play safe. Naturally, proposals based on such ideas tend to be highly risky, but ERC is willing to tolerate them based on the promise of high gain.
In some ways, you can view ERC as the Nature or Science of funders, emphasising novelty, the potential for a step change in understanding and appeal to a broad community of researchers.
The problem or question that motivates a proposal could be novel but does not have to be: it could be an old and familiar riddle awaiting resolution by an unconventional and innovative approach. What is not negotiable is the articulation of the motivation or rationale, for fuzziness or vagueness are anathema to ERC evaluators.
For a handful of proposals, scientific excellence shines through unmediated by presentation, guaranteeing high scores. For another handful, fatal flaws cannot be papered over however slick the presentation. For the majority, which lie somewhere in the middle, presentation could make all the difference.
Good presentation means choosing and organising the content to highlight what will be done, why, how and why that is important, leaving nothing to the imagination of the reviewers. During the first step of the evaluation, the ERC proposals are reviewed by the panels, which look at only the 5-page synopsis (part B1) and your CV and track-record. The panels represent relatively broad expertise: further, given the effort to avoid any kind of bias, it may so happen that someone best suited to comment on your proposal may abstain. Hence, it is crucial to capture the attention of non-specialists by presenting a great idea and then sustain it via an engaging narrative.
If your proposal proceeds to the next step of evaluation, then both B1 and the longer B2 (14-15 pages) may be be sent to specialists for review. This means that you must not only satisfy the generalists’ (panel) need for accessibility, but also the specialists’ need for technical detail. Achieving this balance is not easy, but an approach we recommend is to develop the shorter B1 first to articulate a clear rationale and achieve a compelling narrative. Then, it is a matter of expanding this to accommodate details in B2, which have often to do with the methodology.
ERC assesses not only the research proposal but also the merits of the applicant. Hence, how you present yourself via your CV and track record matters too. These documents need to clearly and quickly justify your suitability for implementing your proposed research.
No substitute for thorough preparation
Developing any grant proposal takes time, but this is especially the case for ERC proposals. Start early, 6 months to a year in advance of the submission deadline. Spend adequate time in letting your idea emerge and crystallise, discussing it with not only your peers but also those who can provide a generalist perspective. Then, we suggest that you develop the shorter B1, iterating as many times as needed to get the narrative just right, thereby generating the framework for the longer B2. You can then seek technical feedback from your peers and feedback on the overall clarity and presentation from experienced grants-office staff or others. You can certainly reuse some of the material from other proposals, but bear in mind that the ideas that were suitable for smaller national or private funders might not necessarily suit ERC.
Ninad Bondre (with input from Caroline Grabbe)
1. The following four experts at SLU were part of the panel discussion:
- Prof Linda Keeling, Department of Animal Environment and Health
- Dr Barbara Locke Grandér, Department of Ecology
- Prof Leif Andersson, Senior Advisor, Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics
- Prof Tomas Roslin, Department of Ecology