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Getting to the Top of a Big Pile

This year's launch of the European Research Council (ERC) was an important event for researchers establishing an independent career in Europe. Principal investigators (PIs) at European institutions with 2 to 9 years of postdoctoral experience were invited to compete for 5 years of funding--as much as 2 million euros--via Starting Independent Researcher Grants. Despite the programme's unprecedented scale, funding rates promise to be very low, however. As the call closed last April, the ERC had counted 9167 applications. Only 250 to 300 awards will be supported.

Last week, the ERC sent letters to 559 applicants--about 6%--inviting them to continue the competition. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques near Paris and chair of the ERC Mathematical Foundations evaluation panel, says that the percentage of successful proposals is so small that some applicants "are outstanding and didn't make it. ... They will be extremely disappointed." To help future applicants avoid disappointment, Science Careers interviewed jury members about what elevated those few applications to the top of the pile.

Get through the first round of evaluation

In the first round, candidates sent in a curriculum vitae (CV), a self-appraisal, a research proposal, and a description of their scientific environment on an eight-page form. CVs and research proposals were assigned up to five points each, whereas the suitability of their research environment was given a pass/fail grade. Applications earning at least eight points--in addition to a "pass" on the research-environment test--earned the right to be considered further in the evaluation meetings that took place in June and July.

In Bourguignon's Mathematical Foundations panel, some 100 applications showed real potential, out of 462 received. "Getting down to 34 [candidates for stage 2] was a really painful process," he says. It's not likely to get easier. Bourguignon hopes to offer "15 to 20 grants, perhaps slightly more," given the 10 million euro budget earmarked for his panel.

In appraising CVs, evaluators looked for all the usual signs of excellence. But the postdoc period is a better indicator of "the ability of the individual to ... plan and carry out research of high quality," says Anders Björklund, head of the neurobiology division at Lund University in Sweden and chair of the Neurosciences ERC panel. A publication record that includes several significant papers relevant to the research proposal was also a key. Mobility and international exposure counted as pluses.

The self-appraisal was hard to get right, says Gretty Mirdal, a psychology professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and chair of the ERC Human Mind and Its Complexity panel. Some applicants came across as "almost boastful. Others were extremely modest," she says. The ones who made a good impression took a "realistic" approach.

In addition to tackling a question that is important, novel, ambitious, and original, the strongest research proposals had promising long-term prospects. "These are 5-year grants, so it means that what has to be described is not a single interesting experiment," Björklund says. "The best applications ... have a plan of research ... that is ... realistic [and] at the same time has this visionary quality ... where the ideas and approach being used promise to lead to some really interesting research over the next few years."

Some excellent proposals failed because they were too vague on how their goals would be achieved, Bourguignon says. "Use less time in your proposal to justify how important the question is and more time to describe how you are going to study it," Mirdal recommends. Also very important is "that you provide some evidence that you really thought about the difficulties that you are likely to encounter," Bourguignon adds.

Evaluators were also sensitive to how skilfully the proposals were written. Proposals should formulate the research idea and strategy in a way that is clear to experts and nonexperts alike, Bourguignon says. Applicants should be careful not to overfill the page. "It is not a matter of saying everything you want to say but [of] being selective," Björklund says.

Good presentation was also a plus. Bourguignon says, "If you ask for 1 million euros, ... people expect ... that you make the proposal look nice, well-structured, thought [through], and logically organised."

One perennial theme of proposal reviewers is the importance of using effective signposts, and this competition was no different. "We were all working under time pressure. Any help that you [give] ... to evaluate pays in the long run," Bourguignon says. Giving an informative title, using well-defined acronyms, and putting each bit of information under the right heading make a reviewer's job easier.

Top pieces of advice for a winning grant application

As proposed by Carlos Belmonte, director of the Neurosciences Institute in Alicante, Spain, and member of the Neurosciences ERC panel.

- Show that you are brilliant, original, and ambitious in your research goals.

- Write the research plan concisely, with clear objectives and a well-defined experimental strategy.

- Provide evidence that you are the main researcher in the project and not just a competent manager of others' work.

- Look for (and propose) ideas that push the frontiers of knowledge, with multidisciplinary approaches.

- Be realistic on the extent and feasibility of the project.

Going on to the next stage

The 559 candidates invited to the second stage now have to put together a 16-page application, including a full research proposal, before the 17 September deadline.

All the advice above still applies when it comes to writing up the full proposal, but it's a given that all the surviving ideas will be very strong. The difference is likely to lie in how feasible the project is, and how clever the approach. "We are reaching a phase where it is not just the quality of the project but how it will be implemented" that matters, Bourguignon says.

Evaluators will look at the proposed budgets carefully. "Asking for enormous amounts ... is a very bad idea because people in a committee like that ... know more or less how much it costs to carry out research," Mirdal says. Similarly, an insufficient budget will make you look scientifically naïve or not ambitious enough.

All the remaining candidates will be invited to Brussels to present themselves and their research projects. "The idea is that when this programme has been running for a few years, the ERC Starting Grant awardees will be ... taking a leadership role" in their scientific fields," Björklund says. So potential for this role "is something that will be looked for in the interview." Good communication skills are important, but "as mathematicians, we will be very cautious not being [impressed] by people who talk very well but the depth is not there," Bourguignon says. Finally, as in any interview, being open, honest, and "just yourself" is the best approach, Mirdal says. But don't be so self-centred that you can't appreciate what your interviewer is trying to gain from the conversation.

Dealing with disappointment

Starting in August, the ERC will send rejection letters and written feedback to those who didn't make it past the first stage. "There are some who have been rejected with a very low average. That means that the proposal was not good or they are not ready yet" to compete at the European level, Mirdal says. She advises those applicants to cut their teeth on local funding sources such as their university or national research council.

Disappointment may be greater still for those who get a rejection letter saying that their proposal was excellent and worthy of funding. "It's not an evaluation of the researcher" but a consequence of the intense competition, Mirdal says. With the ERC planning to inject more money into the scheme every year, the rejection rate should get more reasonable, Björklund says. "We would like to encourage those who were rejected now to think more about their project and application and prepare for submitting next time."

The money is for young researchers, but there's something in it, too, for the established researchers involved in the selection process. It was enriching to see how many bright young investigators there are in Europe, Mirdal says. Competition may look tougher for them today than ever, but "probably there were just as many excellent researchers ... before, and we didn't know it."

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Photo: Jeff Hutton

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