Learning from winning and from losing calls
Grant winners put in the limelight
2021 was a great year for Tilburg University in terms of securing grants, national and international research grants. The invited winners jointly accounted for over €11 million. Acquiring external grants and awards are indicators that matter in the university world. Securing (large) grants is good for the scientific prestige of the researcher concerned, the research group, and the university as a whole.
Author: Clemens van Diek
The winners and runner-ups were put in the limelight on Tuesday, June 28 at Auberge du Bonheur and warmly thanked for all their efforts to secure the funds. Indeed, securing them because it is no mean feat to cross the finishing line as a winner and be awarded a grant for your research proposal.
It takes a long time to get there, with a fairly low success rate of around ten percent on average. That in itself is a threshold for a researcher to invest in an application procedure. What are the chances that you are (not) successful? Should I spend my precious time on this? What should you be aiming for because there are many grant options.
"Putting together a good proposal requires craftsmanship"
In order to remove barriers, the Grant Support Team, consisting of ten employees, can be called in, which by now has built up a great deal of expertise in supporting applications. They can be called on for all sorts of things, ranging from advice, (online) information, scouting candidates, exploring grant possibilities, contact with the grant provider, preparing the pitch, reading and editing the draft proposal to evaluations. Over 2021 alone, the Team assisted some 80 individual applications.
"It's a complex business," says Rector Wim van de Donk, who opens this afternoon session. He praises, in addition to the winners and runner-ups, the Grant Support unit for their invaluable support. "They do excellent and important work. Putting together a good proposal requires craftsmanship." Emiel Krahmer (TSHD) later confirms: "Grant Support is doing a great job, they made a big difference in previous years."
The strange thing, and sometimes frustrating, is that a proposal from a runner-up, who just missed out, can often be at least as interesting and of a higher standard than a winning proposal. Why one person wins and the other (narrowly) fails to win, that's the question.
The session addressed questions such as: what are success factors, what support is needed, what can researchers learn from each other, and how can they be encouraged to apply? And can they also be fitted into the university's strategic program? Knowledge and experience will be shared in two break-out sessions, led by Esther Keymolen (Vice-Dean for Research TLS) and Anne Lafarre (TLS and Vice-President of the Tilburg Young Academy). The participants are photographed and the session is closed with a group photo and drinks.
No one size fits all
Sometimes it can be wise, Van de Donk continues, to pool research questions. It can help not to be on your own. "When you're not alone, it helps." And there is no winning formula. Sometimes a jury can be won over with an average approach, sometimes a courageous piece is honored. "There is no golden rule." That fact also comes up later in the breakout sessions. For an application, "No one size fits all" applies. Nevertheless, it is very instructive to learn about winning and losing proposals.
Time and motivation are often the problem
A major problem appears to be time. Composing and submitting a research proposal, according to the procedures required by the various funding agencies, takes time, a lot of time. And that is scarce in the scientific world. Motivation also plays a role. You have to really want to do it and be willing to invest the time. There is also little point in shooting for everything. It is better to find out which grant best suits you and which has a higher chance of success.
Asel Doranova, runner-up in 2021 of three EC H2020 proposals on energy and sustainability (TSC, this year she did succeed with an EC Horizon Europe project), notes the issue of "competitive interests.” Do you spend your time on grant application, education, or publishing? That is where the shoe pinches. "Incentives could help with dealing with these constraints.”
School and/or Department support is important. Shouldn't more writing time be freed up? A policy issue. Some Schools already do this with what is called an incentive scheme, and education time may be exchanged for application time. But the policy is specific to each School.
Martijn Boons, winner of an NWO Vidi grant, reports being very satisfied with the support of the School of Economics and his Finance Department. He has also learned a lot from other proposals from colleagues.
Wim van de Donk adds, "We need to create an environment that is stimulating." And makes the comparison with “firms that invest in permanent contracts in order to not lose creative minds"
"Take note of winning and losing proposals"
Asel Doranova gives the following tip: keep an open mind. And also mention the practical component, the impact of your proposal on society. In her case, tie in with the UN and EU policy goals. That's something juries increasingly want to hear. Emiel Krahmer adds: "If an evaluator ranks your societal impact as very good instead of excellent, it already considerably lowers your chance of being awarded."
There is quite a bit of expertise in developing grant applications, successful or otherwise. Potential applicants would do well to take note of past winning proposals. But rejected applications are also very instructive. Because it is no fun being rejected and having the reasons exposed for others; a safe and trusting culture is indeed a prerequisite.
The necessary expertise is also available outside Tilburg University. Contacts with and advice from NWO and EU commission members can certainly be interesting. Making that connection is also something that Grant Support offers. Asel Doranova also points to the RVO (contact point for Horizon applications; in Dutch): "They provide a lot of help in improving our proposal and were crucial in being successful. They reviewed more than once and really acted as sparring partners. The NWO or other national entities do not have something similar to this."
"The most important thing is a good project idea and a good CV."
Applying for a grant is often seen as a lottery. A bit of luck is certainly involved but the most important thing is a good project idea and a good CV. In the case of consortium grants, a strong network also counts.
When selecting, Schools should select the top based on qualitative criteria. For example, does someone already have top publications, and how many? Certain conditions must therefore be guaranteed. The group below that can then possibly be moved up by drawing lots. Emiel Krahmer: "Lottery does not work for everything. It may work for smaller funds, at the School level. For the Vidi, not really. And publications count."
"We must be at the table when the calls are written"
Attracting external funding, with specific focus on societal challenges, is a strategic priority of the university and the Schools. External funding thus forms a means to further expand Tilburg University's research agenda, with its focus on "widespread prosperity.” It would be great if calls are in line with this and thus the university can rely on EU funds even more.
"The university has to participate even more than now at the front end of the Brussels research agenda and other (Dutch) external funds. We must be at the table when the calls are written," says Vice-Rector Jantine Schuit. The university can continue to develop on this front and must further expand its networks towards Brussels and other external funds. "For this we need extra figureheads to to take the lead. Not everyone has to do this and is suitable for it, but more people with those skills are needed," said Schuit.
"The future belongs to team-science"
As for collaborative grants, where the grant is shared among several parties, Tilburg regularly hooks up and gets a share of the spoils. Jantine Schuit: "Hooking up is fine, but as a university, you also want to have projects in house that you have the lead over."
In conclusion. "The future belongs to team science," argues Patrick Kenis (TiSEM), "that's what is increasingly being looked at when assessing calls."
Grant winners 2021
Johan van Leeuwarden (TiSEM): NWO Vici grant (€ 1.35 million)
Eva Wolf (TLS): JPI Urban Europe Project (€ 1.2 million)
Patrick Kenis (TiSEM) i.c.w. Jörg Raab (TSB), VU and CONE: NWA Innovation of Supervision project (€1.13 million)
Wendy van der Valk i.c.w. Henk Akkermans, Carol Ou (TiSEM) and Saskia Lavrijssen, Martijn Groenleer (TLS): NWO NGInfra project (€ 1 million)
Kim de Roover (TSB): NWO Vidi grant (€800K)
Sander Verhaegh (TSHD): NWO Vidi grant (€799K)
Martijn Boons (TiSEM): NWO Vidi grant (€795K)
Rob van Gestel & Marc Loth (TLS): NWO Open Competition SSH grant (€750K)
Emiel Krahmer (TSHD) i.c.w. Nadine Bol, Karin Slegers, Frans Folkvord: EC H2020 Innovative Medicine Initiative (€500K)
Christof van Mol (TSB): COST Action collaborative grant (€500K).
Frans Cruijssen (TiSEM): EC H2020 collaborative grant (€ 500K)
Boudewijn Haverkort (TSHD): EC H2020 SwafS collaborative grant (€406K)
Goos Kant (TiSEM): TKI Dinalog collaborative grant (€300K)
Etienne de Klerk & Monique Laurent (TiSEM): NWO Mathematics collaborative grant (€250K)
Nynke van der Laan (TSHD): TKI LSH Health~Holland PPP Match Call (€247K)
Tijs Laenen (TSB): EC Marie Curie Individual Fellowship (€187K)
Marco Da Rin (TiSEM): NRO Comenius Senior Fellow (€100K)
Marije van Amelsvoort (TSHD): Erasmus+ collaborative grant (€53K)
Frans Cruijssen (TiSEM): NWA Small projects (€50K)
Willem Sleegers (TSB): NWO Open Science Fund (€50K)
Jelte Wicherts (TSB): NWO Open Science Fund (€50K)
Bennett Kleinberg (TSB): NWO Open Science Fund (€50K)
Esther Keymolen (TLS/TiLT): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K)
Evelien Brouwers (TSB): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K)
Saskia Lavrijssen (TLS): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K)
Kenny Meesters (TiSEM): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K)
Inge Sieben (TSB): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K)
Ben Vollaard (TiSEM): KNAW Pilot Science Communication (€10K).
(total 11.13 million).