Thursday, 20 January 2011

Notes from 'European Funding: Is It for Me?'

A packed room listened to Prof Simon Thompson, Jenny Billings and Andy Smith give their personal thoughts on European funding yesterday. All have had considerable experience in dealing with the European Commission: Simon has had funding via the Framework Programme, Jenny from a number of other streams, and Andy works for UKRO, the UK Research Office in Brussels, which provides advice and insight on European funding for the UK research community.

Pros and Cons

Andy started by giving an overview of the pros and cons of applying for European funding. He started with the ‘cons’, which recognised the fact that it’s complicated, bureaucratic, acronym-riddled, and inconsistent, with low success rates for some schemes and a ‘top down’ structure which leaves some disciplines out in the cold. However, these are balanced with considerable ‘pros’: the Framework programme handles a huge (€52bn) pot of funding, which is ring-fenced and increasing over the next three years. It allows you to think internationally, to be flexible in whom you work with, and offers good career development opportunities. It’s prestigious, offers great opportunities for exploiting and developing your work, and the success rates for UK institutions bucks the average across Europe with a respectable 23%.

Applying for Funding

Simon followed this by describing his experience of applying to the Framework Programme. He explained the process he went through to turn a single good idea into a complicated 80 page proposal. This might seem like a nightmare for many, but but there are some similarities with domestic funding. Roughly the same amount of detail is needed, but, because there are more partners and a bigger budget, the quantity of information is greater. However, the EC does gives equal weighting to the assessment of the 'science', the project management and the impact. This differs from Research Councils, which focus mainly on the scientific quality. In addition, unlike the Research Councils, the EC mainly issues 'calls for proposals', so you will have to respond to what it considers important. Finally, you have to work as a group, and manage conflicting demands from the participants.

If you’re interested in developing a proposal, how do you build a consortium? Simon suggested starting with a one page outline. This gives potential participants an idea of what you intend to do. Each participant must justify their inclusion, and regular discussions are crucial. Face to face meetings are best (and could be added to a conference trip), but Skype offers great – and free – opportunities for conference calls. The drafting of the proposal should not be left with one individual, and should ideally be shared between two or three, with people pairing up to write. Don’t email each other amended versions of the proposal: this leads to confusion. Instead, use a web-based repository, such as Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), to hold a ‘master copy’ of the proposal.

A good starting point when preparing a proposal is to look at previously successful applications for clues about wording, ideas, and approaches that have worked before. You can even use some of the ‘boilerplate’ text for your own proposal. As you work up the proposal, get feedback from colleagues, UKRO, and Research Services. You might be too close to it to be able to judge it objectively. Read the Guide for Applicants, the Work Programme and the Guide for Reviewers to get a better idea of what the EC is expecting.

Reviewing and Managing Projects

Jenny took over to talk about how proposal are reviewed. The application will be judged on three criteria, and you must make sure you meet all of these.

  • Scientific Excellence: this is the ‘meat’ of the proposal, and you should describe your objectives (in line with the call), what the state of the art is, and how your proposal will advance this;
  • Quality and Efficiency (Management): are the consortium members both excellent and appropriate, and do they have the necessary experience?
  • Impact: explain the impact of your previous research, and think of ways of explaining how the impact of this project will be effectively felt – eg concentric circles, Venn diagrams, etc. Don’t neglect academic impact, and think about potential impact in other disciplines.

Each of these need to achieve a score of 3/5, with a total of at least 10/15. However, if your proposal scrapes through with 10 or 11, the chances are that it won’t get funded, even though it’s got through to the second stage of the assessment. Make sure that your proposal ‘grabs’ the reviewers: they should have a clear idea of what your plans are by the end of the first page. Part of the review process involves them getting together in Brussels for a meeting that can take days, to reach a consensus on a prioritisation list. Give them enough detail and evidence to back up their opinions and bear in mind that the majority might not have English as their first language.

You should also consider what happens ‘after the birth’. There’s a lot of support prior to submission, but you might feel slightly abandoned once the award is made and you have to manage the grant. Managing the partnership effectively is crucial, and consortia have recently been given more powers to expel members who are not performing effectively and doing the work specified. Make contact and develop good relationships with the accounts team in Research Services, who will help with the financial management of your grant, including the completion of timesheets and making claims. There will be annual project reviews, and you need to make sure you are well prepared for these.

In addition, you should recognise the European stereotypes, and be happy to work with them!

The slides from this event are available. Drop me a line if you'd like a copy.

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