Tuesday, 3 May 2016

How to Prepare a Successful ERC Application

Last Wednesday we hosted Maribel Glogowski, our UKRO representative, who gave a thoughtful overview of the European Research Council (ERC) and offered insights into how best to target the funder. Dr Heather Ferguson, who recently won a Starting Grant, joined her to offer an invaluable viewpoint from someone who had been through the process.

Background

The ERC has been one of the great success stories of the EC's Framework Programme. The prestigious, responsive mode fellowships were clearly what the European research community wanted, and this was demonstrated in the heavy oversubscription of the first call for Starting Grants in 2007, when over 9,000 people applied for just 300 awards, giving a success rate of just 3.4%.

Since then the situation has settled down, and now the Starting Grant success rate is actually broadly in line with that of the ESRC at 12%. In Horizon 2020, the ERC is part of the 'Excellent Science' pillar, which funds responsive mode research. Of the total €24.2bn budget for the pillar, the ERC has almost half (€13.1bn). It provides five types of grants:

     Starting Grants: up to €2m for 5 years for investigators 2-7 years from PhD
     Consolidator Grants: up to €2.75m for 5 years for investigators 7-14 years from PhD
     Advanced Grants: up to €3.5m for 5 years (no set career point restriction, but investigators must be well established leaders in their fields)
     Synergy Grants: up to €15m for 2-4 investigators. The scheme is currently on hold.
     Proof of Concept Grants: for ERC award holders: up to €150k for 18 months.

Applying

Whilst the application template is considerable, it is fairly simple. It consists of four parts:

    Administrative and Summary Forms
    Part B1, consisting of a 5 page extended synopsis, 2 page CV, and 2 page track record. This is all that is seen by the panel at the first stage of the application process. Thus, it is incredibly important: you have to get this right to be able to progress on to the second stage.
    Part B2, consisting of a 15 page full explanation of your project, including state of the art and objectives, methodology, and resources. This only gets seen at the second stage.
    Supporting documents, such as statement from host institution, PhD certificate, and ethical statement.

Evaluation

At both the first and second stage, applications are graded by the panel.

    At first stage, they are graded A if they are to pass to the second stage, B if they are high quality, but not sufficient to pass to the second stage, and C if they are not sufficient quality.
    At second stage, they are graded A if they are excellent enough to be funded, depending on the funding available, and B if they meet some but not all of the ERC's excellence criterion.

To give a sense of the numbers involved, in the 2014 round of Starting Grants 26% of proposals got graded A at the first stage, 43% B, and 31% C. Of those that went forward to the second round, 45% got grade A and were funded, 27% got grade A but were not, and 27% got grade B.

Resubmission

These grades are important, because they affect your ability to resubmit. If you get grade A at either stage, or grade B at the second stage, but are then unsuccessful, you can resubmit in the next year. If you get grade B or C at the first stage, you cannot resubmit in the next year. (Note, however, that these resubmission rules can change year on year).

Maribel's Advice

Maribel had some suggestions based on past experience:

    Convey excitement. Think about what excites you in your research, and convey this in both the application and the interview.
    Explain any UK-specific terminology. Remember, the panel might not know about the REF, or understand the significance of specific UK funders.
    Provide a clear, concise workplan with intermediate goals.
    Explain what each member of the team is doing.
    Make the application a pleasure to read, and break up the text with figures and graphs.
    Clearly explain how you will manage and disseminate your project.
    Justify your resources.

One issue that was raised by members of the audience was the suggested profile of the PI given by the ERC. For instance, one benchmark is that a PI have three monographs, one of which was translated. What if you don't have this? It was made clear that this was only one of several suggested benchmarks, and that you shouldn't see it as a ticklist that cannot be varied. People take different academic paths, have different achievements, and the ERC's suggested profile should be seen as guidelines rather than strict criteria.

Heather's Experience

For Heather, the ERC was a gamble worth taking: she was at a point in her career where she 'needed to aim bigger', having already secured a series of smaller grants. She had big ideas that couldn't be funded elsewhere, and her research fitted with the ERC's aspirations to fund 'frontier' research: that is, 'research at and beyond the frontiers of understanding is an intrinsically risky venture, progressing in new and the most exiting research areas and is characterised by the absence of disciplinary boundaries.'

She submitted her first application in September 2012, but this was unsuccessful at the first stage, but was ranked in the top 20-29% of proposals. The feedback she received was useful, indicating that the panel had considered her track record to be good, but the proposal itself to be too ambitious and in danger of being unachievable.

Heather took this on board, and spent the next year developing a completely new proposal, focussing on her key strengths and proven research, and making sure that everything she promised she could deliver. She didn't shy away from the fact that she had already submitted; indeed, she made a virtue of it, explaining how she had developed a new proposal that responded to the feedback she had received first time around. Her new project had a unified plan of research based on strong theoretical foundation and innovative research methods, and was a more focussed, discrete enterprise, whilst still retaining the ambition of her first.

Her subsequent success was down to good planning, a positive belief in her project, and responding well to both external criticism and the feedback of her colleagues. She highlighted a number of key points to bear in mind when applying:

   Think big. This is your chance to think about what you would like to achieve, if you had all the money in the world and weren't having to respond to political pressures or funder priorities.
   Look at previous applications. Pick out the best bits, and make yours easy to read, both in the language and the format.
   Use the right language and include the right information. Check the UKRO guidelines and reviewer criteria. In addition don't be shy about shouting about your brilliance. This doesn't come naturally, especially to the British, but the panel don't necessarily know you or your area, and you need to explain how you stand out.
   Get feedback from a variety of critical people, but ultimately trust your own instincts. This is your research, and it has to sit comfortably with you.
   Give yourself plenty of time to write it and revise it. Clear your diary. Heather was able to group her teaching commitments into a single term, giving her a clear run at drafting the application.
   Be realistic in the budget. You must commit >50% of your time to the project (for the Consolidator Grant it's 40%, and the Advanced is 30%). Include everything, not just the basics, and remember that costs rise and exchange rates might fall.
   Update your online profile, and keep it up to date. Once you submit you are 'public', and reviewers and panellists will probably seek you out to get a sense of who you are and what you do.
   Submit your application continually. It is not like the RCUK Je-S form which is a final, formal submission: you can press submit as many times as you want, and each new submission will overwrite what you've written before. Having put in all the work, it's best to submit whatever you have rather than lose it to a last minute technical glitch before the deadline.
   Prepare for the interview by looking at previous interviews PowerPoints, and arranging mock interviews, making sure that those taking part robustly challenge you and your work. The panel is very strict about timing (even using a bell to start and stop your time), so practice your presentation and make sure it fits the allocated 10 minutes.
   In the interview itself, be clear, enthusiastic and confident, and, if possible smile.
   And remember: the vast majority are rejected. Accept the process for what it is: a chance to dream, and to imagine what can be, but always have in mind a Plan B.


My thanks to both Maribel and Heather for their open, honest and informative overview and insights. If you are a Kent member of staff and are thinking of applying to the ERC, get in touch with me and I'll make sure the relevant Funding Officer supports and helps you fully in the process. 

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