Bodil Holst was born in Denmark and has followed a truly European research career path. After becoming a senior scientist at the Max Planck Institut für Strömungsforschung in Göttingen, Germany, she recently took a new position at the University of Graz, Austria. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is a former Marie Curie and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow.
How would you fancy spending several days in a "secure" building in Brussels, cut off from the outside world, reading other people's research proposals? Although it might sound somewhat exhausting, the truth is that being an "external expert" (or "independent expert" as they have been renamed under the recently launched 6th Framework Programme) is a fascinating experience that can have some unexpected benefits for your career.
The EC needs experts to evaluate research proposals submitted for funding under each of its calls for proposals. During the 5th Framework Programme (FP5) I had the opportunity to work as an external expert on two occasions. Under FP5, external experts were invited to Brussels, typically for a week. We were paid ?125 per day, plus an additional lump sum for expenses and reimbursement of travel costs.
In my case, the building where the evaluation took place had only one e-mail server in the basement, and you were not allowed to take proposals outside the building. It was possible to work for up to 10 hours a day, but this was not required. The number of proposals to be evaluated could vary a lot for different areas. Each proposal was evaluated by three to five people depending largely on how much money was involved, and I had between 2 and 4 hours to look at each. Every proposal had a scoring sheet with a set of questions and a set of marks to be distributed. If there was a significant discrepancy between the scoring sheets for a given proposal, the scientific officer called for a discussion round.
Reading through the various proposals was on the whole a very inspiring experience. This I had expected. What I had not expected were the interesting discussions with the other evaluators during the coffee breaks--scientists from all over Europe, working in all sorts of interesting fields. On the basis of one of these coffee break discussions I have established an ongoing scientific collaboration.
Whether evaluation procedures will be modified for the 6th Framework Programme is currently under discussion. One potential option is to let the experts work from home so that they do not have to travel to Brussels. Various arguments speak for this, not least the increased flexibility for the experts. However, based on my personal experiences, I think that such a change would be a great pity because the exchange between the experts across fields is an additional "European" benefit, achieved at relatively low cost.
As an applicant for grants from various funding bodies, I felt it was particularly advantageous to see the grant-giving process from the other side of the fence. It was good to see that, in my experience, the evaluation procedure was transparent and open. However, one frustrating problem was that sometimes proposals did not address all of the questions on the scoring sheet. As a scientist myself, I can understand the irritation of being asked to address issues such as the "Impact of the proposal on the economical development of the region." But as an evaluator I have a problem if an answer is required as part of the scoring sheet and it is not addressed by the proposal. One might question how sensible some of these requirements are, but anyone preparing a proposal for the EC should be completely aware of the fact that these issues are included as part of the evaluation and must be addressed.
So how does one become an independent expert? As the name indicates, these people are not permanently employed by the European Union. They are professionals (sometimes recently retired) with a scientific or technical background connected to the topic they are evaluating. They typically work as scientists, administrators, and technical developers in universities and other scientific institutions, or in industry. Importantly, registration is open to everybody, and you don't have to be very senior to be selected, as I discovered.
In order be considered as an expert, it is necessary to register yourself online in the EU's expert database. It is possible to return to the Web site any time to change or update information. Various data concerning academic qualifications, language abilities, scientific productivity, and so forth is requested and every candidate must select a series of keywords from a pre-prepared list which reflect most accurately his or her qualifications. These keywords are very important because they define your fields of expertise.
Scientific officers (the EC officials in charge of the administration of the research proposals) use the database to choose experts for a specific evaluation. The database, however, is very big, with several thousand experts registered, so it is not humanly possible for the scientific officers to go through the information for all candidates with a fine-tooth comb. The initial selection therefore necessarily happens largely via the keywords. Thus if you want to improve your chances of being invited to serve in this capacity, it is strategically important to select these keywords so that they match the "special areas" of the 6th Framework Programme as closely as possible. That's not to say, of course, that you should sacrifice your own scientific integrity in choosing keywords; it is also your responsibility to make sure that the information you provide is accurate.
On the whole, I can highly recommend being an external expert and I would like to conclude with a personal acknowledgement to the European Commission for including me and several other young scientists in evaluation panels. I hope the commission, as well as national evaluation boards, will continue to consider this aspect in the future.