ERC Consolidator Grants: Information Events

erc_logoUKRO is the UK National Contact Point for the European Research Council. It is holding three information and proposal writing events for researchers who are interested in applying for the 2014 ERC Consolidator Grants call.

To be eligible for this call, applicants must have been awarded their PhDs between 7 and 12 years prior to the publication date of the call (11 December 2013). The deadline for this call is 20 May 2014.

Events will be held from 11.00-15.00at UCL (20 Feb), Liverpool John Moores (21 Feb), University of Glasgow (25 Feb) and Goldsmiths (28 Feb). You can register on the UKRO website.


Bidding for EU Fellowships: Tips, clues and insights

path path path by Barbara Agnew CC BY-NC 2.0Interested in applying for EU fellowship funding, but not sure where to start? Need some advice and guidance?

Northumbria academics and researchers are welcome along to a workshop being organised by Prof Olivier Sparagano, Associate Dean for Research in Health and Life Sciences on May 29th from 3-5pm in Northumberland Building 442.

Professor Olivier Sparagano (EU panel member for the MCF and Eurasia schemes) is running a workshop on the EU Fellowship funding schemes. If you have previously considered bidding to these schemes (you just need one candidate, not a multi country network) but never seen it through or been unsuccessful, you may find this workshop useful. Anybody can apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship on almost any topic so everybody has a chance.

Olivier has been a Marie Curie Fellow himself (IEF scheme) and won another one last year (IIF scheme) (after a few unsuccessful ones) and he has been scoring many proposals in the past so can give you a few tips about what is not mentioned on the application form but is needed to get a higher mark.

Staff interested in EU funding should also check out Sam King’s report on the Durham University Marie Curie Fellowships day last week and look out for our forthcoming workshop on EU funding demystified: From FP7 to Horizon 2020 which will be taking place in June with publicity and booking available soon.


EPSRC National Importance Update

Soldier Salutes Union Jack FlagYou may remember back in February I wrote a post outlining the clearer guidance new EPSRC Chairman, Paul Golby, wanted to give on National Importance. There was a clear steer that applicants aren’t expected to predict the future, and that the guidance referring to a 10-50 year timeframe was to be removed.

EPSRC’s Senior Peer Review manager has recently got in touch with me to confirm that they have now removed the wording from their guidance webpages:

Preparing New Proposals to Include National Importance

Although applicants do not need to refer to this timeframe in their proposals, EPSRC remains committed to supporting longer term fundamental and strategic research and the research council is maintaining its requirement to demonstrate Impact and National Importance in proposals. The removal of the 10-50 year wording does not signal a change of emphasis towards short term applied studies.


Accessing European Funding – from FP7 to Horizon 2020

Unlock Your Future by Images_of_Money CC BY 2.0Last Thursday Sam and I travelled down to London for ModernGov’s Accessing European Funding Seminar. It was an early start but worth it for some useful insights into the likely shape of Horizon 2020 (the successor funding programme to FP7), as well as crowd sourced hints and tips on developing a high quality Marie Curie Fellowships application for one of the few FP7 calls remaining.

Understanding European Funding

Linda Pialek, Head of the European Team at Oxford’s Research Services department, kicked off with a comprehensive overview of EU funding available: what it is, why the EU funds research, where to find out about it, and how to get it.

It’s a brave person who attempts to survey the vast and complex array of EU funding opportunities, including research and structural funds, within an hour and inevitably there was some overrun/death by PowerPoint. However, overall it was a commendably clear and concise summary which managed to pack in a good amount of useful detail for the EU funding newbie (and even the not-so-newbies).

The key points:

  • Why: the EU funds research and other activities in order to achieve its strategic objectives (we’re currently working towards the Europe 2020 strategy) and where there are issues and challenges which benefit from a coordinated, transnational approach. To put it another way, it seeks to reduce duplication in funding (where two or more national governments may fund the same or similar activity) and adds value by ensuring EU-wide cooperation.
  • What: broadly speaking there are two mechanisms for European funding – contracts and grants.
    • Contracts are competitively awarded via calls for tender and cover a whole range of activities, from the supply of books and IT equipment to studies, analyses and technical consultancy. Clearly some of these activities are more relevant to universities than others. Contracts are highly specific and suppliers must meet this specification and offer good value for money. Tenders are not announced in advance and there can be a very quick turnaround required to take advantage of these opportunities.
    • Grants are more familiar territory for universities and the EU issues a mixture of top-down and bottom-up calls for proposals via an annual Work Programme. What this means is that essentially you can plan grant applications in advance, unlike tenders, and there is more opportunity to specify the direction of the projects awarded. Most of the FP7 budget is awarded as grants for individual research projects and networks, and Horizon 2020 will be similar (see below).
  • How: there are three ways to get involved in EU funding: as an expert to develop the strategic agenda and shape calls; as an evaluator to review proposals and get insider knowledge on EU grants; and as a beneficiary by submitting an application and participating in a funded project. Linda stressed the timescales involved in grant applications for European funding are generally around a year from submission of the bid to project start. What happens in between is the evaluation and project negotiation, if you’re successful.
  • Tips: a vast array to tips and insights were provided on the best way to access EU funding, from reading through past successful bids to attending info days; from understanding eligibility criteria to finding and managing a consortium. Essentially though, it boiled down to making sure you’re as prepared as possible as early as possible. When it comes to European funding, Linda’s view was simple: you can never start early enough because it will always be too late.

Horizon 2020: an update from BIS

Steve Ringer, Head of Framework Programme Management at the International Knowledge and Innovation Unit in BIS, gave an update on the current state of play on Horizon 2020, the successor to FP7.

There has been a mix of useful information, speculation and analysis flying around on Horizon 2020 recently but Steve’s presentation was a useful summary of what we know, what we don’t, and what we can make an educated guess about. It’s important to note that Horizon 2020, like all of the EC’s programmes, is at the moment just a proposal and its adoption is dependent on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework being signed off by EU Heads of State in the European Council. This is a closer prospect now than at the end of 2012, but it could still take until autumn for the i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed.

Key points:

  • H2020 brings together three programmes previously under FP7, the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Like FP7, it’s a multi-year programme which will run from 2014-2020.
  • There will be three “pillars”:
    • Excellent Science, covering a number of “bottom up” actions such as the European Research Council (or IDEAS programme), Marie Curie actions (e.g. Fellowships), and Future and Emerging Technologies (this gets pulled out of the ICT theme where it sat in FP7 and gets a big boost to funding in current proposals.
    • Industrial Leadership, with innovation for SMEs, access to risk finance including venture capital for SMEs, and key enabling technologies covering six technology areas (ICT, space, biotech,).
    • Societal Challenges, this is the replacement for the Cooperation programme in FP7 and is rather different since it is carved up into large, cross-cutting issues rather than disciplinary themes: health and ageing, food security, clean energy, smart transport, and climate action are included in the challenges. The sixth challenge, which was an amalgamation of social sciences and security, has now been split into two: Europe in a changing world and Secure societies. Cultural Heritage had been proposed as an additional challenge but has not been agreed. Given the titles of these challenges, there will inevitably be a focus on interdisciplinary projects to address them, many of which will feature an enhanced role for industry, SMEs and other non-research focused actors.
  • The current proposal from the EC is a budget of €80bn over the period. However, the European Council (EU heads of state) has suggested a significant cut to €70bn in line with cuts suggested elsewhere in EU budgets. The European Parliament (MEPs), however, wants an increase from the original €80bn proposal. Where it will end up is anybody’s guess at the moment, but BIS indicated that they expected it to fall somewhere in between €70-80bn.
  • Within this budget the current breakdown in the three pillars is: Excellent Science 32%; Industrial Leadership 23%; and Societal Challenges 41%, with the remainder on EIT and Joint Research Council. Within those pillars the headline is that ERC sees a doubling of its budget from FP7 to €15bn, which is welcome news for the UK since it has done so well from this strand in the past. Marie Curie, meanwhile, has a more modest increase to €6.5bn, which Steve suggested may be revised upwards before the whole thing is signed off.
  • Simplification is one of the watchwords in H2020, but it should be stressed that this is a relative term! From what we know, however, it does look more straightforward than FP7. Current negotiations suggest that there will be a single funding rate of 100% of eligible costs for all research, non-profit, and public sector actors, with an indirect cost rate of 25% of eligible costs (though this may drop back to the original proposal of 20%). Industry would get 70% of eligible costs for close to market actions, with the same indirect cost rate. Different reimbursement rates for different types of activities would be a thing of the past.
  • Alongside this, the EC has proposed a raft of other changes designed to increase participation and reduce paperwork: fewer, better targeted audits; a broader acceptance of participants’ accounting practices; simpler grant agreements; making VAT an eligible cost; and a faster average time to grant (targeting 230 days average, down from the current 330 days).
  • Given that H2020 is due to start on 1st Jan 2014, the timeline to adoption is tight. The next key step as mentioned is the ratification of the Multi-annual Financial Framework, likely in Summer/Autumn 2013. Following that informal calls may be released as early as December this year.

Marie Curie Fellowships: Good practice tips to help secure EU funding

Linda Pialek led a workshop in the afternoon which mainly focused on proposal writing for the latest Marie Curie Fellowships call, which I blogged about here last week. Although this exercise focused on a specific call, the approach is widely applicable to other EU funding streams.

The starting point is to read the guidance and understand what the call is fundamentally about. In this case, Marie Curie Intra European Fellowships are primarily focused on mobility and training. The focus is on early career researchers and giving them them the experience and skills they need to progress to senior researchers. It was also noted that there is a “triple-I” dimension to the call: intersectoral (i.e. moving between industry and research), international, and interdisciplinary.

Winning Marie Curie Fellowships funding is tough: proposals which score less than 90/100 are regularly unfunded. It’s not that they’re poor quality – it’s simply that there’s not enough funding available to meet the demand for places, so any bid really needs to stand out to have a chance of success.

The next step is to write the application to explicitly address the review criteria. The five sections in this case are:

  1. Science and Technological Quality
  2. Training
  3. Researcher
  4. Implementation
  5. Impact

Getting hold of a copy of the evaluator’s guidance notes is helpful here to ensure you precisely match your bid text to the checklist that the evaluators will use. At this point we split into groups and discussed what we would include in one of the above sections, directly addressing the evaluation criteria. Our group took on the Implementation section and came up with the following ideas:

Quality of infrastructure/facilities and international collaborations of host: Describe the state of the art equipment/facilities in your Department, how much is it worth, has there been a recent investment in labs, equipment or other resources. What international collaborations has the department had, give evidence of previous funding. What international networks are the department involved in and how can the fellow tap into these networks. Has the department hosted previous MC fellows, what is the department‘s current postdoc portfolio. What lab and desk space will be made available for the fellow.

Practical arrangements for the implementation and management of the research project: How will the fellow be managed. Will there be weekly meetings with the supervisor and other members of the department. Tie in regular meetings around the work plan milestones and objectives. Mention any central service support. Research office can assist with the development of IP, what HR training courses are available to support transferrable skills, for example project management.

Feasibility and credibility of the project, including work plan: Think about risk assessment, draw up a risk register. Create a Gantt chart with a workplan, milestones, objectives and deliverables. Hold a list of Key Performance Indicators that can be monitored through the lifetime of the project. Where you have a general statement on how you handle IP at the host organisation, include this here. Research & Business Support Staff can assist in managing IP and there is national funding available in the UK (HEIF) to support innovation.

Practical and administrative arrangements and, support for the hosting of the fellow: Mention the real practical support here, are there good schools and nurseries nearby if the fellow has a family, will the fellow get assistance in finding accommodation before they arrive. Does the international Office have any welcome events or clubs that the fellow can take part in while they’re here.  Mention here any support that is available in the Language Centre for language skills development.


AHRC Peer Review: Make It Work For You *Live*

Peer Review Monster by Gideon Burton CC BY-SA 2.0The AHRC is hosting the second of its two peer review events today at RIBA in London to support best practice in writing and reviewing grant applications. Topics covered include:

  • What makes a successful grant application to the AHRC?
  • Insights into other HEIs’ internal peer review processes
  • How does the AHRC Peer Review College assess applications?
  • Keynote speeches from an AHRC Peer Reviewer and a Research Officer

If you want to follow what’s being said, Phil Ward, Research Manager at Kent, is doing sterling work livetweeting the event under the #ahrcprc hashtag. And you should also read Phil’s summary of the previous event on his blog.


Leverhulme Trust: Plain English is Important

Knots by What Indie Nights CC BY-NC-SA 2.0A recent interview with Gordon Marshall, director of the Leverhulme Trust, in Research Professional [£ – subscription required] covered the Trust’s newly released Research Programme Grants call, including its focus on the “nature of knots”, the ability to take risks, and the importance of writing applications in plain English. It’s worth a read if you have an RP subscription.

Research Programme Grants are the Leverhulme Trust’s only major departure from operating a “responsive mode” policy. Each year the Trust selects a number of themes and invites bids on those. Usually the themes are broad enough to cover a range of disciplinary approaches, and indeed this year’s focus is on encouraging and stimulating interdisciplinary applications. The current themes are:

  1. The Nature of Knots
  2. Sustainable Living

You can find out more about the background behind the themes in the Research Programme funding guide and also in the RP interview linked above. On the first theme in particular, Marshall says: “Knots are an emerging area in a number of sciences—polymer science, life sciences. They’re a phenomenon in biochemistry, where independently people have begun to realise that these things are important. They’re also a phenomenon in mathematics. There’s enough there that we could get a cross-disciplinary take on that title.”

On the importance of plain English, Marshall emphasises that the Leverhulme board consists of nine ex-senior board level members of Unilever, so there’s no guarantee that someone with an expertise in a specific sub-discipline of biochemistry, say, is going to be reading your application. Another common mistake, according to Marshall, is spending too much time on the literature review and too little talking about what you’re actually going to do in the proposed project: “This is more common among early career researchers,” he adds. “They leave themselves half a page to say what they will actually do by way of study. What matters is the methodology, what’s the research design, what are they going to do and why?”


National Importance: EPSRC Publishes Example Statements

EPSRC has recently published a number of sample “National Importance” statements from successful grants where the reviewers commented specifically on this section:

Examples of National Importance

National Importance was introduced as an additional review criterion by EPSRC late last year. The purpose is to help EPSRC prioritise proposals based on potential contribution of the research under review to related disciplines, other EPSRC investments and UK strategic challenges over a 10-50 year timeframe. All EPSRC grant applications now must include a National Importance statement which forms part of the Case for Support.

The examples given on the website include research on nanomaterials, biomaterials, photoacoustic imaging, and wind energy. Length varies from a few short paragraphs to half a page or more. The way different authors have addressed the criterion has also been acknowledged by EPSRC – there is no set way of tackling this section and it very much depends on the area of research you’re working in. However, several of the exemplar statements explicitly reference both EPSRC and government priorities (e.g. Healthcare Technologies, sustainable energy policy) and other global stakeholders to situate the research in an international context (e.g. FP7, OECD, US government). Several of the statements also emphasise the UK’s currently leading or competitive position within certain areas of technology, with the strong implication being that funding the research will strengthen this position.

These example statements should be read in the context of EPSRC’s wider guidance on National Importance if you are preparing a proposal to this funder.


Open access grant proposals

US-based biology researcher Ethan White has compiled a list of publicly available grant proposals in the biological sciences (thanks to Phil Ward for highlighting this). Often university research offices make available successful bids to other staff within the same institution, but Ethan and several others have gone further and taken the brave step of making their bids (successful and unsuccessful) openly accessible on the web using Creative Commons licenses.

The list mainly consists of bids to US funders, such as NSF and NIH, but Casey Bergman, based in Life Sciences at Manchester University, has made available a few proposals to UK Research Councils BBSRC and NERC.

Discussing the reasons for making his grant proposals openly available on the web, Ethan White argues that openness is inherently beneficial for science and that giving early career researchers access to funded proposals can help them learn the art of good bid writing:

By sharing our proposals the cutting edge of scientific thought will no longer be hidden from view for several years and that will allow us to make more rapid progress … I think having examples of grants available to young scientists has the potential to help them learn how to write good proposals (and other folks seem to agree) and therefore decrease the importance of grantsmanship relative to cool science in the awarding of limited funds.

On a similar theme, Joss Winn’s LNCD team at the University of Lincoln has made available some successful JISC funded bids on Google Docs. For example, here’s the bid for their £330K funded Orbital project. Arguably this goes further still by making the proposals viewable and editable on Google Docs, meaning others can make comments and even add to the proposal. Joss takes a similar view on open bid writing to Ethan:

I see no benefit to writing bids such as this in private, other than hiding the process by which I write grant applications. The projects I propose and the outputs they generate are all open source and usually promote some variation of openness (open access/source/education/data), so why not start with the writing of the bid? Perhaps someone will be generous enough to contribute in some way or even learn something from being able to see the bids in their raw state. It also stakes a claim on the nature of the proposal, too and with a CC license, the idea is sufficiently ‘protected’.

This is a contentious issue and clearly not everyone is going to be happy to open up their research bids in this way – typical concerns relate to the possibility of ideas being “stolen” by competitors. What do you think? Is this something you’d consider doing with your bids?


Starting and Advanced Investigators: ERC information and bid writing events

UKRO has issued a reminder about three remaining information and bid writing events for ERC Starting and Advanced Investigator grants:

  • University College London (UCL), Wednesday 5th September 2012
  • University of Glasgow, Wednesday 12th September 2012
  • Natural History Museum (NHM), London, Tuesday 16th October 2012 (Advanced Grants only)

The deadline for the Starting Grants is 17th October while the Advanced Grants call closes on 22nd November. If you’re planning on submitting a bid to either of these schemes you’re strongly encouraged to attend one of these sessions if you haven’t already. You can book online via the UKRO NCP portal:

Each session will provide participants with an overview of the ERC Starting Grants orAdvanced Grants schemes. Participants should gain a deeper understanding of the proposal format and the key issues they are required to address in planning, writing and costing an ERC Grant proposal. There will also be an opportunity to ask some questions. Attendance will be free of charge, thanks to the support from the organisations hosting the events.


Developing a successful research grant – Presentation

I’ve uploaded my recent presentation on “Developing a successful research grant” to Slideshare. You can view it below. You’ll need to download the file if you want to view the associated notes (it’s a 5MB file). It’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share-Alike license:

This presentation was delivered as part of a postgraduate certificate in higher education practice aimed at early career researchers at the University of Northumbria. It’s necessarily a fairly generic presentation as there were representatives from a wide range of disciplines, however it should serve as a decent primer for those who are new to academia and want to know the basics of what it takes to secure funding.

There’s also a more practical follow-up session where we’ll look at actual examples of (successful and unsuccessful) research council funding bids. This will also be an opportunity for participants to write and get feedback on their own outline proposals.