Every young academic will sooner or later take a shot at applying for an ERC grant. ERC grants are considered to be amongst the most prestigious grants out there. It provides you sufficient funding to establish a high risk/high gain research line. Obtaining one is considered a game changer in your academic career: it is a prestigious award, it greases the wheels for getting tenure and it can even be used as a bargaining chip to secure a position elsewhere.
In this blog article, I aim to give you a -as honestly as my memory allows it- recollection of all the attempts I undertook to obtain an ERC grant in the past decade. I guess most of you will think it has always worked out for me the first time right; well, I can tell you that has rarely been the case. In life like in science, failures are rarely reported (although I always honestly mention it in my personal discussions with colleagues and young academics). However, failures happen frequently to me, as you will read below; my story is far from unique if you ask around. My hope is that this account provides young academics with some more insight into my ERC journey and gives them hope for their own ERC mission.
The Starting Grant
Like many, I was eager to roll the dice and try early on in my independent academic career to apply for the Starting Grant (ERC-2013-StG). I prepared by collecting as many successful proposals as I could get my hands on and trying to discover an underlying structure for what a winning proposal might look like. I brainstormed with colleagues about potential ideas I had, and after a few sessions, I felt confident that I had a bold idea that fit the high risk/high gain category.
I focused for the next few weeks, fervently writing the proposal and I even managed to rope in some colleagues for proofreading duty. Either they were just too nice or didn’t have the heart to say otherwise, but the feedback was unanimous that it was at least good enough to get an interview. Full of confidence, I submitted both B1 and B2 parts and I waited …
A few months later I got an email … from the ERC. Excited and nervous, I opened it and my face immediately dropped: shit … a B grade, indicating that the proposal was of high quality but not sufficient to be invited for an interview. Back then, you still had to wait longer to get the evaluation reports so I couldn’t even tell why it is was deemed “not good enough” (thankfully, that has changed in the meantime and now the decision and the reports are sent together). After a few weeks of waiting, I got the feedback. “The project targets the development and implementation of photo-redox catalysis to be used in microreactors, which is argued to improve the efficiency of the photochemical processes. The ideas are interesting and reasonably well based on state-of-the-art. Unfortunately, the panel finds that the project is described in a rather generic fashion.”
OK, I thought, this feedback is actually not so bad. So I’ll try again next year and in the intervening time upgrade the proposal. I worked really hard to get more details in the proposal to avoid the “generic” criticism. After seeking further advice from a growing list of colleagues, I was happy with the upgrades and submitted it online (ERC-2014-StG).
A few months later, the verdict was again negative: another B grade! What the f*** I thought. The feedback left me equally confused: “The proposal clearly reports very clever and very ambitious objectives, with an impact on large range of fields. The proposal is therefore high risk and high gain. However, it does not go beyond the state of the art”. Re-reading this feedback today, it still sounds contradictory: ambitious but does not go beyond the state of the art… huh???
I must admit that the second time, the psychological blow was much harder to take. The amount of time I had invested into this project was significant and the feedback although it seemed kind of good, it clearly wasn’t good enough. It certainly was hard to accept, but at the end of the day what can you do?…
I had a long, fruitful discussion with my colleague (Dr. Martin Timmer, may he rest in peace) about what to do next. Resubmitting seemed like it was not an option and anyway, I was now restricted from submitting for one year (a new ERC rule: a B grade means excluded for one year, a C grade for two). We came to the conclusion that the proposal was good enough and that maybe the problem was that many of the details were in section B2. Which is -no joke- not even read if you do not reach the interview stage (I always felt frustrated about that, especially because it was the longest, most labor-intensive part).
We decided to repackage the proposal and submitted it to VIDI, a personal grant scheme from the Dutch Research Council (€800,000 vs €1,5 M from ERC StG). To my delight, it got great referee feedback and following a good interview the funding was approved on the first try! This process also gave me the confidence that the original ERC proposal was in fact not bad and the ideas were good enough to compete in prestigious grant schemes.
So, after sitting for one year on the ERC sidelines, I had one final chance for an ERC Starting Grant (ERC-2016-STG). Since my previous version was granted by NWO, I had to come up with a new idea and thus rewrite the entire proposal. The idea was to develop a new type of microreactor which could harvest solar energy efficiently to drive photocatalytic transformations. The reactor was made of a light-harvesting and light-guiding material, called luminescent solar concentrator. Once this reactor was developed we also wanted to develop an integrated reactor design, where all equipment (pumps, computers, etc.) were using solar energy as well, and thus could be utilized off-grid. This time we also had some preliminary results which demonstrated the feasibility of the concept.
After submitting the proposal, I got the news from ERC a few months later. Yet again, the news was negative, the result a B; thus no interview and another penalty of a one year-ban from submitting. “The panel found the ideas proposed in the project interesting; however questions were raised about the project neglecting the difficulties in using the solar radiation concentration. The stability of the luminescent solar concentrators under direct sunlight was also considered a critical issue.” This verdict meant that my chances to obtain an ERC starting grant were over…
However, since I was convinced of the strength of this research idea, I doubled down on it and tried to carry it out with other funding sources, which were however, less royal. Together with my PhD student Dario Cambié (MSCA ITN Photo4Future funding), we carried out the ERC idea and everything worked exactly as described in the proposal leading to one of the most successful research lines in my group: the luminescent solar concentrator-based photomicroreactor concept1,2,3.
Once the idea was executed, we had one of the few solar-driven reactors in the world. Funnily enough, due to this unique expertise, we are now asked by various consortia to contribute to their proposals, leading to a substantial amount of funding which has now eclipsed the initial ERC StG budget.
The Consolidator Grant
After failing the ERC StG three times and even not getting a single interview, one could get pretty demotivated. I must admit that I was frustrated, but only for a few hours/days after I received the news. However, as time passes, you get better at putting these things in perspective. As said above, there was always a silver lining: the feedback was not bad, the panel said nice things about my career, I was able to get backup funding via a different grant scheme and the ideas were fine resulting in new cutting-edge research lines. And like I jokingly told my group: I am going to get an ERC, or die trying!
So after my one year penalty was over, I decided to write a new proposal (ERC-2018-COG) for the Consolidator scheme (making it €2 M instead of €1.5 M). The idea was to develop synthetic methods and technology for the photocatalytic modification of peptides and proteins. I thought this idea was reasonable, as my student Cecilia Bottecchia had worked on some interesting methods for peptide modification (up to 20 residues, fully unprotected)4,5,6. She actually helped me a lot with getting the proposal ready in time!
This time, the news that came from Brussels was nicer: I got my first interview! I was really excited and I actually started with my preparations right away: studying the literature, asking colleagues for potential questions, reading books about presentation skills and even following a training from Yellow Research (an organization that specializes in preparing candidates for the interview). Everything I could control, I did and I was ready for the battle!
The day of the presentation I was excited but not nervous. I went to Brussels by train, was a bit too early and just went upstairs to the floor where the interviews were to be held. I even met a friend who was also there for an interview so we chatted and I felt really relaxed. Then it was my turn, I went in and I thought my presentation went pretty smooth: proper pace, well-timed hand movements and perfectly within time. The first questions went really well. I still remember that after 10 min I was really proud and I thought it was in the bag. But then the questions about selectivity issues started and despite my answers, the same question was returned to several times. It seemed that the panel was rushing to ask them and I felt I barely had time to answer the questions properly. The final question was about the fact that I asked for specialized equipment and thus exceeded the budget (FYI, I asked for > 2.6 million, which is allowed if you need something special to carry out the research). When giving my answer, one panel member sighed loudly and said in an annoyed tone “everybody wants more money”. I stayed firm and said I needed it to be able to do the experiments.
You might wonder, how the h*** does he still know those details. Well, on the train back, I wrote in my notebook every single question I received and how I answered it (I even wrote the time I arrived by train, when I went in, etc.). I can really recommend that you do this, it is helpful for analyzing your performance when the final verdict comes in.
And yes, the final verdict came a few weeks later … I still remember that day vividly. I was coming back by car from a seminar in Münster and my phone was not loading any emails while driving. Maybe for the better as the news was negative. I think it was one of the hardest blows in my career. I had to lie down the rest of the day and I was literally in tears. How could it be?, I had done everything right: I worked for months to prepare those 25 minutes (10 minutes speech + 15 minutes questions), even on the beach in summer I was reading papers/books in preparation…
After a day or two being completely down, I once again found my fighting spirit. I knew a person who was in the panel and I contacted him after a week. The information I received was extremely valuable, these panel members can give you a lot of insight in the decision making process and they know the exact reasons why your specific case could not be retained. He also encouraged me to try again and he was even willing to read my proposal.
So the year thereafter, I tried again (ERC-2019-COG): same proposal and all the criticisms were addressed, which was confirmed by that former panel member. And yes, I got another interview. This time, I am ready… I thought. To my surprise, I received the same questions all over again: issues with selectivity… I remember thinking: Did I not fix this, did I not detail that properly this time?
At that stage, I already knew the decision. It was confirmed a few weeks later: again a no… But yet again, I knew one of the panel members so I asked again for personal feedback. This feedback was a game-changer. Two issues were clear to him. Firstly, the selectivity remained an issue and this could only be dealt with by way of proof-of-concept results. Secondly, I am not a specialist of protein modification. There was a doubt that I would be the right candidate to do this work; this criticism was espoused by half of the referees and thus it could not be ignored by the panel even though my past research in general was regarded as strong. For me it was now crystal clear, the first criticism I could potentially be able to fix but I would have difficulties in fixing the second. The latter would take me years to address as I needed to gather both the papers and the credibility in that space. So the only conclusion I could come to was to abandon this proposal for now (currently I am repackaging it and I am trying to get it funded in a consortium with chemical biologists).
I had to write a new proposal which was closer to what we were doing in the group. Maybe it is good to reflect here again. A proposal closer to your expertise seems obvious. However, if you are too close to what you do already, referees might question why the ERC should invest so heavily in something that you already do. From my personal interactions with ERC holders, I often received the feedback that you need to push the boundaries. However, from my own experience, if you push too far, you also do not get funded as it is not seen as credible. So, it’s really a tight balance between high risk/high gain and staying realistic.
We wrote another proposal, called FlowHAT (ERC-2020-COG) aiming to develop synthetic methods and technological tools that would provide a breakthrough in the selective functionalisation of strong carbon–hydrogen (C–H) bonds present in small organic molecules and biologically active molecules. We had some proof of concept results which were published in Science after the submission of the proposal7. So I felt confident the work was definitely high gain-material.
And yes, for the third year in a row, I got an interview. As in the years before, I meticulously prepared every detail of the interview: gathering questions from my team and colleagues, preparing the talk and doing a number of mock defenses. On the interview day itself (which was on zoom due to the Covid pandemic), I felt the presentation went well (which was without slides this time, this felt weird but ok you can prepare for it) and also I felt the defense was pretty good. The questions I got were easy to rebut and my feeling afterwards was extremely positive. I wrote in my notebook: “Panel members were nice to me and very positive about the proposal. I have confidence we will be close to being funded.”
To my shock, it was not funded once again. The feedback was formulated as follows “The panel considers the proposal of high quality and fundable; however it is not in a sufficiently high position in the ranking order to be retained for funding.” I could not disagree more with the final decision, especially because I felt the overall feedback was the most positive I had ever received and maybe we could have been funded with a bit of good-will. To me, the only problem seemed to be that the proposal was “medium-risk/high-gain”, as mentioned by one referee.
ERC CoG – The last chance
I had one final chance to get a consolidator grant (ERC-2021-COG) and after that I would be “too old”. The feedback from the previous year was the best I had ever received and I was wondering what could I still improve? I disagreed that the proposal was medium risk, so why did referees say that? Can I sway the referee opinion in the right direction by making some minor adjustments?
So this is what I did. First, I pushed the risk a bit further. Not too much as I thought we were close to getting funded. Second, I made risk assessment tables for each work package, in those tables I provided for every task: the risk level (low-medium-high), the contingency plan, and the scientific impact. My hope was that I could steer the referee’s opinion in the direction that I had in mind, i.e. a good balance between doable research and high risk/high gain goals.
And yes, I got another interview, which was to be held online on January, 18th 2022. As usual, I wanted to take no risks and I blocked my agenda for the two weeks before the defence. However, the closer we came to the interview date, the more nervous and cranky I became. I guess it was mainly because it was my final chance. In my head, the lines “don’t f*** it up” were on repeat which, of course, did nothing to help the situation.
On the day itself, the presentation went really well; I think it is the one part which one can actually control and therefore I like it. However, this time, I remained nervous. During the questions, which I could answer pretty well, I always had the feeling I had to work hard to get my answers out. Of the four years, this time I couldn’t accurately tell how I had done. I’d had too much bad luck in the past years to feel confident afterwards. In the weeks thereafter, I tried my best not to think about it anymore. I even had a nightmare in which I woke up in the middle of the night bathing in sweat: in my dream, I had again screwed it up.
The final answer came on Wednesday March 9. As Figure 1 shows, nothing can be found in the email itself. You had to login on the portal. And I dared not click on the link… When I did, I had to fill in my password, which of course, I did not remember. So I had to request another one. Time was ticking and my heart was going like crazy.
Figure 1. Email received from the European Commission.
Finally, I got in. And I started reading (Figure 2), I got an A and the proposal was ranked for funding. But I really didn’t like the “if sufficient funds are available” line. What did it mean? Is it now funded or not? The panel comment seemed to be going in the direction of funded: “The panel therefore recommends the proposal to be retained for funding with a grant not exceeding 2,000,000 Euro.” But I was still not sure, so I opened the president letter (Figure 3): it starts with a lot of generic information but then I read “I am pleased to inform you that your proposal was ranked at a sufficiently high position to allow it to be funded.” I was now sure that it was granted and I let out a scream of pure joy!
Figure 2. Screenshot from the Evaluation Letter
Figure 3. The so-called president letter with the clear message: Proposal funded.
We are now one week after the fantastic news and I still cannot believe it. After 7 submissions, 4 interviews and 6 heartbreaks, I had finally got an ERC proposal funded. It is a story of six downs and one final, glorious up. I am grateful to the many people who helped me in the past years, including my research group members, my colleagues and all those who were prepared to give advice.
I hope that this story might be useful to you too in obtaining a grant, whether it is ERC or something else. My main advice is: never give up and keep trying, you always have a chance to get it. And even if you do not get it first time, or the second, or the xth time… you always learn from the experience and sooner or later you will nail it. Trust me, you will get it!
Timothy Noel, March 17, 2022
(1) Cambié, D.; Zhao, F.; Hessel, V.; Debije, M. G.; Noël, T. A leaf-inspired luminescent solar concentrator for energy-efficient continuous-flow photochemistry. Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2017, 56 (4), 1050-1054 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201611101
(2) Cambie, D.; Dobbelaar, J.; Riente Paiva, P.; Vanderspikken, J.; Shen, C.; Seeberger, P.; Gilmore, K.; Debije, M. and Noël, T. Energy-Efficient Solar Photochemistry with Luminescent Solar Concentrator-Based Photomicroreactors. Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2019, 58 (40), 14374-14378 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201908553
(3) Masson, T. M.; Zondag, S. D. A.: Kuijpers, K. P. L.; Cambié, D.; G. Debije, M. and Noël, T. Development of an off-grid solar-powered autonomous chemical mini-plant for producing fine chemicals. ChemSusChem 2021, 14 (24), 5417-5423 DOI: 10.1002/cssc.202102011
(4) Bottecchia, C.; Rubens, M.; Gunnoo, S.; Hessel, V.; Madder, A.; Noël, T. Visible Light-Mediated Selective Arylation of Cysteine in Batch and Flow. Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2017, 56 (41), 12701-12707, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201706700
(5) Bottecchia, C.; Erdmann, N.; Tijssen, P. M. A.; Milroy, L-G.; Brunsveld, L.; Hessel, V.; Noël, T. Batch and flow synthesis of disulfides by visible light induced TiO2 photocatalysis. ChemSusChem 2016, 9 (14), 1781-1785 DOI: 10.1002/cssc.201600602
(6) Bottecchia, C.; Wei, X-J.; Kuijpers, K. P. L.; Hessel, V.; Noël, T. Visible light-induced trifluoromethylation and perfluoroalkylation of cysteine residues in batch and continuous flow. Journal of Organic Chemistry 2016, 81 (16), 7301-7307 DOI: 10.1021/acs.joc.6b01031
(7) Laudadio, G.; Deng, Y.; van der Wal, K.; Ravelli, D.; Nuño, M.; Fagnoni, M.; Guthrie, D.; Sun, Y. and Noël, T. C(sp3)–H Functionalizations of Light Hydrocarbons Using Decatungstate Photocatalysis in Flow. Science 2020, 369 (6499), 92-96 DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4688