The pressure on researchers to win ERC funding grows more and more intense and the competition gets tougher and tougher with no signs of abating. Many institutions are actively searching their communities of eligible candidates for possibles who for some reason or other have not yet put pen to paper or are unwilling to do so after already having tried and failed. They are drawing up lists of researchers who they think stand a chance and encouraging them to write their proposals, in some cases quite lightly while in others with a little more force. These institutions are often left with a long list of people considered to be possible proposers who might have an idea in mind, sometimes an idea written down in some form and sometimes with no particular idea at all but with a great deal of enthusiasm for exploring the possibilities that the programmes present and a growing track record of publications or a developing international reputation.
Over the years I have often been asked to help out at this stage i.e., when a long list of those willing and possibly able to participate has been identified and before any writing has really been done. The objective of the institution at this moment is to try to identify which of their researchers really stands a chance of being competitive. They would like to know this as then they’d be able to focus the limited resources they have available for supporting researchers on those with the most chance of benefiting most from their help i.e., researchers who are going to be close to the winning line and who might be pushed over with some expert input, those who have the potential to win but might not do so under their own steam.
Our work in this particular part of the ERC project development process is often called ‘screening’ by the clients who have asked me to do it – and it has become a major line of work and has been very well received. The process is quite demanding on all sides but is basically pretty simple. I take two, three or four days to interview all the candidates – in fact, very often it is a small team of people from the institution who are fielding their candidate and supporting them through it and they often encapsulate the work of a small department in their outline proposal when we get down to discussing it. Interviews are an hour or two long and are stacked up throughout the day, Ideally, there is some written work to review and comment on beforehand, but often not and everyone works from a ‘cold start’ to see if the ideas are the right level and the right ‘shape’ to fit the demands of the call and that they are supported by an eligible cv.
I make notes during each session and debrief the client organisation at the end of each block of work about the readiness level (in fact, it would be helpful to find the time to develop an ‘ERC Readiness Level’ scale along the lines of the standard technology one) of each of the people that I am speaking to and about the characteristic problems that are emerging during the sessions. In technical institutions, for example, it might be that nearly all the researchers are so used to working in close collaboration with companies or on very applied projects that they find it hard to think in other ways. The general task then is to coax and coach them to push the work back down the ‘basic- applied’ spectrum to find a basic research problem in the field they work in which will give them the best chance in the ERC: it is almost always possible to do this although it is not always clear at the end if the researcher would actually commit to seeing this work through.
It is rare, very rare indeed in fact, that there is anything at all in the researcher’s profile or in the quality of their work which would make it impossible for them to win – the standard of science across the EU is clearly very high indeed and with surprisingly little variation. All the candidates for the ERC in all countries are basically of the same high standard and everyone can identify a winning idea either very easily by reflecting briefly on the intractable problems at the centre of their field or can be encouraged to do so quite easily and effectively. This has always led me to the belief that it really is the quality of the presentation of those ideas in crystal clear proposals that really makes the difference between the winners and those not funded. Currently ERC statistics show that around 50% of all funded projects are in 50 institutions and that this powerful agglomeration effects seems to be hardening up each year. My experience tells me that it is not credible to believe that the science in those places is so much better than the science in all the other places in the EU: however, it is easy to believe that there is such skill and tradition now in those places about proposal writing and winning this particular game that these are the factors that are driving the tight grouping of funding in some countries and some institutions in these countries.
Often at the end of the assignment when everyone has been interviewed and all the supporting documents read carefully I am given the task of drawing up a ranking of the candidates. The purpose of this list is so that the institution can offer more focused support to those that are readiest to make use of it and get closest to winning given their level of preparedness. It is never a comment on the quality of the research or the idea but rather how good the fit is between the ERC demands and the idea that is being developed and the objectives that the project will aim to reach. It is simply an assessment of whether this project is a more buyable ERC entity than the next one and is an entirely functional list to identify those who at that moment in time are closest to being competitive in the timeframe of the call.
When I look back on the results of the calls months after this screening work has been completed the prediction about which candidates were ready and, therefore, most likely to be successful is very often proved to have been quite accurate. It is not unusual to see the top two or three from a screened and prioritised list as winners. The extra support that the institutions provided to them – often it is me that supplies this extra ‘push’ – has been decisive and so the process of picking winners from a long list and focusing on those who are really ready to go would seem like a very effective way for EU project offices to do their jobs. It is, in short, a very proactive way for institutions to generate a list of good possible candidates, identify those who can win and to focus their scare support resources on them so as to avoid spreading these precious euros too thinly on those who are not yet ready to push hard enough to win.
The feedback I have from the winning candidates who have been identified and supported through these screening processes has been very striking. Some of them had not really considered submitting before being contacted by the EU support office (some had been identified on their recent publication activity, for example). Subsequently speaking to me they are often quite open about the fact that they had been altered to the opportunities of the ERC by the process of generating the long list for screening by the home institution and shown how to win by the interviews during the screening process and by the very focused follow up support which I delivered. So, the message I got back is simply that they were encouraged and supported to win by the process I have described in this post which is a very efficient and effective way of targeting resources on potential winners which should be a priority for all hard pressed EU project offices.