Grant applicants put in the limelight
Grant winners at Tilburg University jointly managed to raise more than 24 million euros in 2022. Acquiring research grants and research awards, national and international, is very important for the university. Securing (large) grants is good for the scientific prestige of the researcher concerned, the research group, and the university as a whole.
The winners and runners-up of grant applications were put in the limelight on Thursday, June 15 at Auberge du Bonheur and warmly thanked for all their efforts to try and secure funds. It really takes quite some time and effort to write an excellent grant application.
So, what can be learned from successful applications? What should the university do to improve the process and the support? These questions and more were topics during a structured discussion centered around the question: How to stimulate a grants culture at Tilburg University? How to persuade researchers to put their scarce time into an application? Last year's harvest was certainly satisfactory, but we should always aim to do better.
Vice-Rector Magnificus Jantine Schuit (photo left) thanked the attendees for participating and Grant Support (GS) for the organization and their fantastic support provided to the grant applicants. "We're on the right track, but there are still things to improve on, process-wise and individually." Obtaining grants is of great importance to the university, in relation to and competition with other universities. There is a lot of money to be raised from various funds, nationally and internationally. As a university, it is important to claim this, she emphasizes. That is why the work of GS is so important in making the applications of candidates successful. Regarding grants, there are differences in culture and working methods (selection, communication, assistance) at the different Schools and departments. Also, each individual needs specific help, and every request has a different approach.
Jantine Schuit: 'We're on the right track but there are still things to improve on'
Jantine Schuit emphasized the importance of taking into account both the short and long-term aspects of candidates’ scientific careers. It is crucial to identify the most suitable grant for candidates based on their ambitions, prospects for promotions, and desired international career progression. Additionally, she said, we should carefully consider the stage of a candidate’s career when determining the optimal timing for their application. We must certainly acknowledge the large teaching and research responsibilities that candidates often carry, which limits the time available for responding to calls. Considering these factors, it becomes necessary for us to provide support and assistance to candidates to alleviate these time constraints. The importance of a good balance between research and education was also re-iterated by Rector Magnificus and President of the Executive Board Wim van de Donk. Education is not a side project, departments should be involved in distributing the workload well.
The Vice-Rector Magnificus suggests that a buddy system could be useful, where older experienced employees help younger candidates with their insights. She believes communication about all options (which grants, available support) could still be improved in many ways. The Executive Board promises to promote the possibilities in the various forums at university, School and department level.
'We need strong incentives to start an application'
The discussion in three groups covered four topics: incentive schemes, strategic choices, sharing experiences and collaborative grant opportunities.
Besides intrinsic motivation, time and appreciation are the most important factors for taking on the task of writing a grant application. All Schools have, or will soon introduce, an incentive scheme to support and facilitate writing by offering money to free up time for writing or to hire external help.
Many attendees agreed that incentive schemes are nice and show appreciation from the university for the effort put in. Most participants do know about the existence of incentive schemes but indicate they do not understand precisely what the rules and procedures are.
A participant: "We need strong incentives to start an application. But in the end, success is also a matter of luck. We should not be forced and pressured to write a proposal."
Schemes vary per School. For example, TiSEM gives a financial bonus if you submit an application and offers time to write the proposal. However, buying teaching time is not always possible. You have to find someone who is not only willing to take up your teaching tasks but also has the expertise to be able to take over. Due to the heavy workload placed on everyone, some researchers choose not to use an incentive scheme because they fear overburdening colleagues.
'Contact researchers who follow similar research lines'
Researchers/lecturers should not apply for every grant opportunity that comes by. Each individual has a different profile and is therefore more suited for one grant than another.
A good start is usually the annual performance review between researchers and Heads of Department. Here, researchers can discuss whether they are ready to apply for a grant. However, these are not really grant specific.
For more tailored advice it is possible to go to the Grant Support Office. They provide targeted advice on the larger grants. For smaller grants, GS will share information if they happen to come across it but in general they do not advise on small grant opportunities.
It is always wise to involve senior colleagues. After all, they are the ones who share the same line of research. So, it makes sense to follow their path. This might also help to motivate you to respond to a call when it is recommended by researchers who are in your research field. Moreover, it is a good way to get a feel for the grant application process by doing an application with a senior colleague and practicing first in a working group of researchers.
'Learn by conducting cross school interviews and conversations'
Sharing experiences and learning culture
To increase grant success, it helps to gain insights from previous experiences. There is much to learn from awarded, but also rejected applications, and from feedback reports.
In general, it was agreed that much can be learned from past failures, and from what (not) to do. To foster a sharing and learning culture, GS already offers past winner sessions and has an available page with past winners who are willing to talk with you about your application. Mock interviews with past applicants may also be of added value. Another idea to help facilitate a sharing and learning culture is to organize cross school sessions and speed dating events. It was also requested to organize more meetings like the Grant Event, with good conversations, so applicants can learn from each other without looking at each other as competitors and are reminded to see the fun of working on a proposal.
'Individual grants tend to be valued more than collaborative grants'
Collaborative Grant Opportunities
To increase the number of coordinating roles in collaborative grants, investing in and sharing partner networks is key. One way the university has invested in new networks is through Academic Collaborative Centers (ACC) where new solutions are sought for pressing social issues through co-creation between different disciplines and various societal partners.
Vice-Rector Magnificus Jantine Schuit stresses the importance of participating in consortia. Much more money could be raised through collaborative grants and participation in socially relevant research is particularly important for the university.
Attendees highlight some hurdles in applying (and getting) a collaborative grant. Although the help of Grant Support is very helpful during the application process, once you've got the grant, the coordination of all parties involved forms a major obstacle. Lack of time is the big issue here, especially for young researchers. Therefore, help would be appreciated also after the grant has been acquired. Such help could perhaps be found in departments or secretariats scattered throughout the university. They could maybe take on such a coordinating role, but how to reach out to them is still an open question. Another potential drawback of consortia grants is that you only receive part of the funding (often no more than 20%). As consortia are structured around specific themes, the level of control you have as an applicant over the content becomes a key consideration. However, by assuming the coordination role, Tilburg University can establish credibility and demonstrate its capacity.
A participant: "I look for a good consortium, with a collaborative atmosphere, when applying for a collaborative grant. The topic has to be fascinating to spend time on. My main motivation is impact."
An important question is where the researcher's priorities lie. In many research fields publications are still weighed more heavily than grants. If you're on a tenure track, you want to be competitive in the international market. You want to be visible and this visibility you obtain primarily through publications. On top of that, individual grants tend to be valued more than collaborative grants, thus even if a researcher focuses on a grant application it is more likely to be an individual proposal
Finally, it is brought up that Tilburg University has 'too few friends'. For example, Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft benefit already from experiences in working together within consortia and within an established infrastructure. The vice-rector agrees that some universities do not need us as much as we need them, nevertheless if we aim for European grants and less for Dutch ones, there are many more opportunities.
Engage Grant Support, they are there to help you
To answer the question at the beginning (how to stimulate a grants culture) the following can be concluded:
- Winners earn research time and scientific prestige both for them as well as the university.
- Involve experienced senior staff in developing the grant application (i.e., as a buddy).
- Find academic colleagues within your field, who work on the same subject/application.
- Consult with the department on how to use an incentive scheme.
- Find a working balance between teaching and research.
- Determine the most appropriate time in someone's career to apply for a call.
- Get well-informed about rules and procedures, dos and don'ts, failures and successes.
- Engage Grant Support, they are there to help you.
- Participate in/organize sessions or events across Schools and departments.
- Improve communication about all grant options at all levels of management.
- Look for units willing to take on time-consuming coordination within consortia.
- Find suitable partner universities and networks.
Grant winners 2022
- Robbie van Aert (TSB) — NWO Veni: € 280.000
- Henk Akkermans (TiSEM) — NWO KIC Missiegedreven innovatiesystemen: € 319.625 (Total consortium budget: € 1.466.714)
- Marjolijn Antheunis & Emmelyn Croes (TSHD) — ZonMw Open Competition: € 250.000 (Total: € 809.366)
- Roland Blonk (TSB) — Horizon Europe: € 394.004 (Total € 2.998.725)
- Roland Blonk (TSB) — ZonMw Verbetering re-integratie tweede spoor: Total € 799.688
- Stefan Bogaerts (TSB) — ISF Cyber: € 237.759
- Bart Bronnenberg (TiSEM) — NWO Open Competition: € 475.241
- Frans Cruijssen (TiSEM) — TKI Dinalog € 850.000 (Total: € 1.000.000)
- Jan Fransoo (TiSEM) — NWO Open Competition: € 746.171
- Jan Fransoo (TiSEM) — TKI Allowance Topsector Logistiek Dinalog: € 71.640
- Reyer Gerlagh & Asel Doranova (TiSEM) — Horizon Europe: € 498.275
- Inge Graef (TLS) — Horizon Europe: € 273.726
- Irene Kamara (TLS) — Horizon Europe: € 391.782 (Total: € 4.392.540)
- Eviane Leidig (TSHD) — MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowship: € 203.464
- Tessa Leesen, Alkeline van Lenning, John Gelissen & Lotte van Doeselaar (TSHD) — NRO Higher Education: € 602.725
- Boris van Leeuwen (TiSEM) — ERC Starting Grant: € 1.396.644
- Emiel van Miltenburg (TSHD) — ZonMw Deelsector Visueel: € 185.153
- Phillip Paiement (TLS) — ERC Starting Grant: € 1.470.849
- Nicola Pavanini (TiSEM) — ERC Starting Grant: € 1.494.124
- Marie Petersmann (TLS) — NWO Veni: € 280.000
- Corien Prins (TLS) — NWO Gravitation: € 2.951.178 (Total € 21.300.000)
- Kim De Roover (TSB) — ERC Starting Grant: € 1.499.500
- Dave de Ruysscher (TLS) — ERC Consolidator Grant: € 1.929.204
- Manon van Scheppingen (TSB) — NWO Veni: € 280.000
- David Schindler (TiSEM) — NWO Veni: € 279.713
- Take Sipma (TLS) — ODISSEI LISS panel grant: 15 minutes access to LISS panel
- Jenny Slatman & Femke van Hout (TSHD) — PhD in the Humanities: € 263.328
- Jenny Slatman (TSHD) — Horizon Europe: € 293.350 (Total € 3.620.397)
- Elies van Sliedregt (TLS) — ERC Advanced Grant: €2.299.684 (Total € 2.332.184)
- Daan van Soest, Patricio Dalton & Till Wicker (TiSEM)— NWO Open Competition: € 750.000
- Michiel Stapper (TLS) — Horizon Europe: € 966.500 (Total €3.873.956)
- Linnet Taylor &Tineke Broer (TLS) — ERC Proof of Concept: € 150.000
- Caroline Vander Stichele & Frank Bosman (TST) — NWO Open Competition: € 678.050
- Sander Verhaegh (TSHD) — ERC Starting Grant: € 1.493.680
- Ruben van Wingerden (TST) — Stichting Amici Almae Matris: € 27.000
- Jan de Wit (TSHD) — eScience Fellowship: € 3.000 + 36 hours eScience consultancy