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Applying to the ERC and want to gain dedicated tools for success?

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Throughout the years, our team continues to encounter one repeating issue with countless ERC applicants regarding the ERC grant writing phase of their grant proposal. In general, grant writing is the bread and butter of any researcher. Therefore, the ERC application will surely not be a first attempt at applying for funding. Some researchers already have impressive experience with writing and applying for other funding schemes. As a result, they already have substantial resources (ideas, plans and written material) available for any upcoming grant opportunity. When such an opportunity for a new grant arises, recycling, or rather ‘re-using’, previous grants applications seems to be the natural choice. Though this may work in many instances – ERC grant writing requires much different attention. Clearly stated: recycling (almost any) past grant application into an ERC application should be strongly reconsidered. In most cases these “recycled applications” are not successful. Now, let’s understand exactly why.


Understanding the unique requirements of ERC

The requirements of ERC are higher than most other grants, whether it be national grants, Horizon Europe grants, or others. Because of its unique requirements, ERC grant writing tends to be counterintuitive for researchers accustomed to the requirements and standards of other funding schemes.


Among these counterintuitive aspects of ERC, we count the expectations for:

High risk– in contrast to low risk and high feasibility expected in many other grants. For most funding agencies, unlike the ERC, the name of the game is “feasibility”. Their aim is to fund projects with high probability of yielding results. Therefore, grant applications targeting these funding agencies shy away from high risk research, and present a feasible work plan supported by plenty of preliminary evidence, past experience in a similar line of work, collaborators, and more. All this highly contrasts the expectations of the ERC. Read more about high-risk in ERC.


Hypothesis-driven projects – while this is not unique to ERC, we find that ERC expects the level of hypothesis presentation to be much higher compared to many other grants. In addition, there are some areas where researchers are not used to working with hypotheses in their research. While in many other grants this is acceptable, it might not be acceptable in ERC and they will be expected to present a hypothesis after all.


Non-incremental work – unlike feasible and incremental work expected in many other grants, ERC has a strong requirement, though unofficial, to present non-incremental work. Read more about non-incremental requirements here.


Individual leadership of the research project – collaboration on core aspects of the project is not welcomed in ERC. It can in fact potentially hurt the competitiveness of the ERC application. This is unlike many other grants that promote, and even demand, networking and collaboration in many aspects of the project.


Due to the nature of such unique requirements, most “recycled” grants simply won’t touch on, or give proper answers to, the above statements.


Recycling during ERC grant writing

With the above statements in mind, when an applicant considers recycling a past grant into an ERC application, she/he should understand that this calls for serious adjustments of the application. This is a timely and difficult task that should not be taken lightly in any respect. Our experience shows that many times it is better to start with a “clean slate” creating an entirely new project rather than adjusting a past grant application. Naturally, both past applications and any new ideas will revolve around a core research line which the researcher specializes in, methods for which he/she excels, and so on. But, starting a grant proposal with the unique ERC written and ‘unwritten’ requirements in mind increases the competitiveness and success rate for the specific grant scheme.


We are not recommending to propose a research project which is unrelated to the researcher’s expertise, quite the contrary. The research needs to be tightly connected to interests, experience and current line of work (providing with the needed preliminary results). But, the ERC expects the researcher to go far beyond the state of the art, and propose an ambitious conceptual, non-incremental leap forward. This essence typically does not exist in any past applications to other funding schemes. Therefore, any adaptation of such should take this discrepancy into consideration. Simply re-using past grant proposals can miss the mark with many of the unique ERC requirements.


What does the applicant need to do in order to meet the requirements of the ERC?

By now it should be very clear that recycling past grant proposals in the context of the  ERC grant writing proposal is not something that we advise to do. The only fitting next step, then, is exploring the advised processes that need be considered for crafting a highly competitive ERC grant proposal. If you are ready to go – read on and discover what you need to know in order to write a successful ERC grant proposal.


The following are a great place to start:

ERC Grant: Bringing You One Step Closer

Who is ERC Material

ERC – Who’s Afraid of h-index?

Hypothesis in ERC: How to do it Right

The Non-Incremental ERC Challenge


Comment: this article focus on the contrast between ERC and most of other grant applications. However, there are few other high-risk grants in Europe, mimicking the ERC for that matter, such as the NRC FRIPRO and SFF grants in Norway, DFG in Germany and the SFI grant in Ireland. In the case of recycling grants from these agencies, the gap might be smaller, but we’d still recommend addressing this with extra care.

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