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Now that the ERC 2018 Advanced Grant deadline is behind us, it is important for us to highlight and share some of the lessons learnt. This is because our ongoing efforts is to learn from past deadlines, track significant trends, and report on them. In this way – future applicants, or current applicants that will apply to additional grants in the future, can continue to learn and improve. As a general note – we often notice a recurring misunderstanding regarding the nature of ERC, especially when comparing to other national grants. Correcting this misunderstanding for future applications can prove incredibly useful. We will touch on this issue, and additional important lessons, below.


ERC 2018 Advanced Grant: Timeline and seasonal interruptions

First and foremost, an important comment about the ERC Advanced Grant timeline.  One of the biggest issues with ERC Advanced Grant is that its most pressing preparation months leading to the deadline fall during summer break. We see this issue replicating itself on a yearly basis. Time and again, researchers must deal with issues such as access to resources, difficulties in getting attention of colleagues regarding their proposal, and much more. This is one important reason to start preparing before summer break kicks in.


Additionally, due to summer schedule (and vacation), many researchers who start working on their proposals much later than advised acquire our consulting services quite late as well. But working with applicants requires time. Starting late can mean that the potential quality of our service may not be up to par with our usual standards. It also means an incredible bottleneck at the finish line.


Therefore, our first crucial lesson learned is to start working on the ERC Advanced grant ahead of time. We strongly urge applicants to begin their work with us no later than April (considering deadline is in August). This will help us ensure that we offer our services with the utmost of attention to all applicants we work with.


Ensuring your proposal meets ERC criteria

The fact that the ERC is packed with elusive requirements, unwritten rules, and counter-intuitive expectations continues to be a leading issue for most applicants. The ERC “misunderstanding” was evident in about 80% of the initial drafts that we received. Many neglected to format their initial proposal to adhere to many of the important ERC requirements. After clear feedback on these issues, we were able to assist most PIs in adjusting and revising their application to meet the ERC criteria. Still, we can report that around 15% of the applicants eventually dropped out after realizing that their research concept and scope cannot meet the ERC criteria. They were mostly concerned about the ERC personal blocking.


Realizing that the proposal doesn’t conform to the requirements of the ERC after considerable work has already been invested can be very frustrating and discouraging. An alternative, more suitable, concept can be conceived if the decision is taken in time. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. To help aid in this issue, we strongly recommend all PI’s working with us to start with our free of charge “Go/No-Go” service. Our free screening service assists in evaluating whether the project’s concept is in line with the requirements of the targeted grant.


Below are several examples of this recurring misunderstanding as seen in ERC 2018 Advanced Grant:

The incremental challenge in ERC

A prevailing comment responsible for the failure of many ERC AdG (Advanced) applications (though also found in ERC Starting and ERC Consolidator grants) pertains to the ‘incremental nature’ of the proposed research. Why is that? How can one successfully design a project which reflects the naturally occurring progress forward which builds on past achievements, current knowledge, expertise, and preliminary results, while at the same time conforming to the ‘non-incremental’ ERC unofficial requirement? We have a dedicated post that goes into great detail on resolving this incremental issue.


Hypothesis-led projects in ERC

Even though the word “hypothesis” cannot be found anywhere in the official ERC guide, experience shows that this is a defining requirement for all ERC grant proposals. Our work with this year’s applicants, as well as previous deadlines, shows us that this is often an overlooked requirement. As well, once researchers understand it must be included, we see that this is most times a very difficult task to attend to. For this reason, we’ve put together our guidelines for writing hypothesis-led ERC grant applications.


Recycling is good for the environment, but not necessarily for ERC

When writing a new grant application, many researchers will start from an application they have recently written and try to adjust it to the current technical requirements. Can a ‘recycled’ application work for ERC?  In most cases the answer is no. Research concepts which are suitable for other grant applications will often not conform to the unique nature of ERC: Investigator-driven (non-collaborative), high risk, high gain, basic research-oriented, hypothesis-driven and non-incremental frontier research. We’ve developed this idea through a separate post. Read more about recycling in ERC.


Fishing expeditions? Not in ERC

We define research as a “fishing expedition” when it is clear that new information will surely be found, but no high-level hypothesis or theory about the nature of this information is offered beforehand (usually seen in projects that are based on deductive reasoning). For example: looking for possible correlates within a new set of data or screening for novel bio-compounds in a newly found source. Even though sometimes such research is the only way to move forward, and it might lead to important discoveries, it comes with a low conceptual scientific risk, which contradicts the essence of ERC. ERC expects researchers to challenge current paradigms and to offer frontier, high risk projects. Hypothesis-driven research with a strong theoretical framework makes ERC proposals more competitive. Nonetheless, we’ve taken the time to address this issue as well, and to formulate clear tips and guidelines for adjusting data-driven projects to match the ERC criteria.


To conclude:

Writing an ERC proposal is demanding and challenging work. It is best to begin the process with a basic understanding of what constitutes a competitive ERC proposal beforehand, rather than drafting most of the proposal only to realize that it needs drastic changes in order to comply with the unique nature of ERC. As well, one should not submit an ERC application at any cost. It is important to remember that the ERC applies a blocking system for PIs whose application is rejected on the first stage of the evaluation process. Submission of an application which is immature, or not compatible with the unique nature of the ERC, might result with a blocking of one or even two deadlines (years).  As this is a highly competitive program, one should consider the odds and the effort to be invested.


A logical strategy and time planning which includes training and information on the nature and requirements of the ERC, followed by concept crystallization and only then writing the full proposal, may save time, frustration and unnecessary hard work for the researcher. If you would like to request our help during this process – learn more about our services and contact us!

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