Our most initial communications with new researchers working on Horizon 2020 or ERC grant proposals include an overview of the expected evaluation process for each respective grant. Such an overview is based on our experience working with countless grant applications and allows us to track winning grant proposals and note a repeating structure for success. It often happens, during such initial communications, that a researcher will comment on a peer or colleague whom did not follow the presented regular practice and recommendations and nevertheless was awarded with the grant they were after. It is exactly at this point that we want to make an important distinction between such ‘winning’ grants exceptions and those that won as well but followed the more customary paths. In this post, we’ll address this issue, refer to its “distorting effect”, and offer our recommendations for success.

Winning grants exceptions and the serious distorting effect they cause

As stated, throughout the years we have come across a pool of cases in which applicants did not follow the regular grant proposal practice and recommendations. Some applicants even executed the exact opposite. Nonetheless, these applicants still had winning grants . As the old statement says: “You cannot argue with success” – and we certainly won’t do that. But – let’s break down such exceptions and study them closely. This will enable to understand just why their distorting effect can be “dangerous” for researchers opting to possibly mimic their ‘unrecommended’ ways in hopes of winning as well.

In order to clarify this important point, we have been able to group two types of ‘winning exceptions’:

Winning exceptions directly relating to the structure of the proposal – these type of exceptions are generally easier to spot. They simply do not abide by the formal Horizon 2020 structure or the more elusive ERC unwritten requirements. These proposals do not “feed the reviewer”. Instead, they direct unwanted questions at the applicant and hurt the overall chance for success.
Winning exceptions resulting from any other reason than proposal structure -these can be trickier to spot. Examples can include a highly attractive project allowing evaluators to overlook mistakes, bad or wrong evaluation or evaluation mistakes. Additional examples include bias (which does happen sometimes), low application rates to a specific call (i.e. winning as the “default”), exemplary CV (mainly in ERC), policy-oriented bias [mainly when the large European Technology Platforms (ETPs) are involved], and more.

Overall, it truly does not matter if these projects were awarded due to the reasons above or for any other reason. Once a project is awarded all the negative aspects are entirely discarded and forgotten.

What to do in the case of winning exceptions?

We can report that winning exceptions typically account to only few of the overall successful grants. From far away, all we see is winning grants projects and then all the rest becomes less relevant. But, a closer look will surely uncover contextual evidence rather than structure that is deeply rooted in the success of the specific project. For this reason, it cannot be assumed that the same will be repeated for another proposal, and it is quite dangerous choosing to emulate such specific ‘wins’.

This is the exact issue with the distorting effect of exceptions. It can time and again lead other applicants to follow these unconventional awarded projects, while implementing a wrong, untypical and unrecommended structure. Unsurprisingly this has proven to be an unsuccessful approach.

A closer look at the distorting effect in ERC

Since there is no clear structure in ERC, it is expected that each PI will come up with a presentation structure that fits their exact proposed research. In a sense, the ERC application serves like a sandbox, which each PI shapes according to his/her definition of the project. This definition of the project stems from many ingredients, which are typically unique to the PI and to the proposed research project. This is why ERC projects are, by definition, entirely crafted by each PI.

This is one worrying occurrence where the distorting effect comes into play with winning ERC proposals. Simply put – a structure which successfully worked for a previous ERC project was solely based on their specific needs and approach. Each high-risk project is immensely different. There is no real way to believe the same structure will fit well enough to support the specific needs of an entirely different project proposal. Therefore – copying an ERC structure is not the way to go. Instead, it is advised to follow the customary path and include the unique attributes of ERC. Some of these are the high risk/ high gain approach, the non-incremental, hypothesis-driven research, collaborations, fragmentation, and more.

To conclude, our recommendation is always to follow the common practice. The chance for success is always higher this way. The fact that one did not follow this practice and still won the project is a positive anecdote, but it is still an anecdote and should be regarded as such. Yes, it is entirely understandable that given the high stakes and circumstances, one will want to look onto any winning grants as a guiding light for repeated success. We have seen many such moments, and experience always shows us the paved path and charted requirements are the way to go. Exceptions are only noise along the way that we must steer past and return to the paved path for success.