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Life as a grants adviser


Giving guidance on the ERC’s grants game

Many researchers will apply for a European Research Council grant at some point in their career, hoping to win not only the funding but also the prestige that comes with such an award.

It can feel hugely frustrating to be knocked back when the underlying science is water-tight. But, as Arina Shadrikova, an adviser in the office for research and innovation at the University of Oslo, well knows, it’s not all about the science.

Shadrikova shared some of her more strategic tips for applying for ERC grants at the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Earma) annual meeting in Oslo in May. She develops those ideas here.

Which area of research support do you work in?

My experience here in Norway is in the social sciences faculty, and my background is as a researcher in political science. I don’t only support ERC applications, we have partnership programmes with other institutions and we try to encourage researchers to apply for those. There are national funding programmes too—small funds for PhD students and so on.

How do you help researchers with their ERC applications?

Because of my experience, I can see whether an application will get to the second stage or not, specifically for ERC grants. It’s not only the application that we’re talking about for ERC grants, it’s also a researcher’s CV and the quality of their research. Sometimes you can see the potential, but it’s presented in a way that will never go further.

How do you know if an application is not ready?

It depends on which panel the researcher is applying to. After you’ve worked on more than two or three rounds, I think any research support staff member can see what type of CV wins. The researcher’s ranking in their field is also important. If their peers have two publications five years after their PhD in top journals, and the researcher has three, and one of them is single-authored, of course they are in a better position. If a researcher feels they are in a good position compared with others in their field, it is more likely they will apply.

Can it be awkward to tell researchers they don’t have the best chance?

Yes. Not every research support staff member wants to tell a researcher directly that their application is not good. It’s difficult because people want to keep good relationships for further collaboration—we want trust between researchers and research support staff. 

It’s very important not to demotivate researchers. That’s why it’s vital to work out a researcher’s motivation early on. Do you want us to send your application now, or do you want to get the grant?

Do you see differences in confidence between different groups of researchers?

Not really. But what I have noticed is that female researchers are more conscious and focused about the grant. They develop the idea to get the funding, and if they don’t get the funding, they will not work on their idea. They only apply when they are completely ready, and if they are not sure then they will not apply. But male researchers are often more relaxed if they don’t get the funding.

What are some of the challenges researchers face?

For ERC grants, there are moving thresholds. It depends on how many people submit their applications in all fields. It’s not decided that the field of anthropology gets a package of €70 million for Starting Grants this year, for example. It depends on how many applicants there will be in anthropology, how many for the general social sciences panel, the humanities panel, and so on.

What also happens sometimes is that researchers in fields that were more successful than they expected to be in the previous round will submit more applications. And suddenly you have lots of people applying, lots of high-quality applications, and the threshold shifts.

This uncertainty influences the application process. Other funding programmes often have a set amount of money available and a certain number of grants available. With the ERC, this is not always the case. It depends on how many people apply and how good they are. That is why the statistics are very important and helpful in deciding whether or not to apply.

What are the pressures on the people you advise?

Sometimes young researchers have it written into their contract that they have to apply to the ERC. There is such pressure on younger researchers now to win these grants, and that’s a bit sad because in the past people just wanted to do research and find answers to the problems they were exploring. Now they have to think about whether their work can be communicated, promoted, advanced. 

It is important to remember that this is just the mechanism for funding. At the end of the day, it’s just about money, and the question is whether the researcher can transform this money into a real, important  result. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com