A prevailing comment responsible for the failure of many ERC Advanced, Starting and Consolidator grants applications 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?
What is ‘non-incremental work’ in ERC and why is it important?
The issue of ‘non-incremental work’ is a very important apparent attribute of ERC, although it is not officially required (this is similar to the ‘hypothesis-driven research’ issue in ERC). But what does this elusive attribute actually mean? Normally ‘incremental’ means the next step. It is only natural that every researcher will plan the next steps of his/her research, building on previous achievements and work accordingly, moving meticulously forward step by step. That is the usual acceptable practice. In fact – any advance in science should be connected to previous steps.
The main issue here is how big of a step is entailed in the proposed ERC project. As the formula suggests, moving forward in small steps will surely increase feasibility. At the same time, it will also reduce the risk. This is yet another defining area where we find ERC to be substantially counterintuitive to many researchers. ERC is looking for high risk projects. Incremental, feasible and low risk research are quite possibly the antithesis to such a requirement. Naturally, the proposed project needs to be in relation to past achievements and rely on the applicant’s experience and expertise. However, the essence of ERC is taking research and knowledge far beyond the state of the art, using past achievements and expertise merely as a stepping stone.
On the other hand, PIs should be careful not to propose projects that will be perceived as ‘too ambitious’ (and fail due to that). Though this now may sound like a never-ending back-and-forth, one should consider that comments on overly ambitious research in ERC are less common than those on incremental research. Proposals are deemed too-ambitious when they are perceived as completely unrealistic, not well-planned, and not-well connected to the PI’s expertise and preliminary results.
The unique case of “non-incremental” for ERC Advanced Grant (AdG) applicants
Proposing groundbreaking, high-risk, projects of the kind that ERC is looking for is a challenge for researchers in all career stages in ERC (StG, CoG and AdG). Still, our experience shows that it is often the established researchers, and to some extent even more so those with significant groundbreaking achievements in their track record, that experience most difficulties in this respect. Such researchers find it more challenging to propose yet another leap forward which is non-incremental with respect to past and ongoing work. This is exactly what makes this such an important issue for AdG applicants. Some may even consider it to be one of the main ERC AdG ‘killers’.
Many ERC AdG applicants have become known in their fields for a specific achievement, a method they developed, a line of research, or field for which they were pioneers. These researchers typically publish well and are acknowledged by the scientific community as leaders in their field. In many cases, the research that follows these significant achievements is characterized as a direct continuation, incrementally broadening knowledge around a given breakthrough. This type of work is essential for progress. Sometimes it is the only way to advance our knowledge. It is also very typical of many funding schemes and yields numerous publications. However, this type of research typically encompasses less conceptual risk and the potential breakthrough is smaller. When thinking of applying to the ERC, one must realize that such a thought process may very well pose the issue of “incremental” work, and will therefore be negatively regarded.
Indicators of an ‘incremental’ ERC project
There are various indicators that can help assess whether an ERC project is ‘incremental’ or not. While reviewing the following indicators, one should remember that this is no exact science. This means that the right answer, in most instances, is case-specific. Therefore, we encourage to refer to the following issues with care and to seek additional advice about each specific case.
- Direct continuation of the current daily work in the lab/research group. If the suggested project is the natural next step of your current work, then with high probability it is ‘incremental’. When approaching ERC you should present a major step forward, compared to the state of the art (yours and your research community). This will also help to establish the novelty of the project and the high risk component.
- Work that can be conducted anyway, regardless of the funding source. Many applicants apply to ERC due to the size of the grant, sometimes overlooking its uniqueness. ERC has an entirely different agenda compared to most funding schemes. You can assess this by asking yourself the following: “Can I fund this project (entirely or partially) by applying to other non-ERC like funding schemes?”. If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then it is probably more feasible than expected in ERC, implying that it might be incremental and thus not ERC-suitable. Keep in mind that ERC’s aim is to nurture very ambitious, high risk research, with the hope of making significant breakthroughs. Most other funding agencies will be reluctant to fund such high-risk/ high-gain research.
- A ‘time and material’ type of project – These type of projects are usually straightforward projects, which are likely to reach meaningful results (yet not the type of breakthrough expected in ERC) once they are funded and executed. This usually implies that these projects are of low risk. We know from experience that such ‘time and material’ projects are likely to be regarded as ‘incremental work’ by the reviewers.
- Work that is new to the PI but not to the scientific community. When thinking of non-incremental research, some applicants misinterpret this expectation to be non-incremental with respect to their personal career. They then simply propose something that they are not yet experienced in, but are interested to pursue, with the hope that the ERC could support this novel direction. This becomes an issue when the new direction is already an established line of research or method in other research groups. While this new direction could be significant from a personal point of view, it is not necessary that the result will be a significant breakthrough to the scientific community. Moreover, in this case it is possible that experienced groups could achieve a breakthrough faster and with less effort. In this context, keep in mind that the PI should be the best suited to tackle the challenge at hand, and the research proposed needs to be tightly related to his/her CV and track record.
Achieving the ‘non-incremental’ ERC requirement
The above indicators can very well be an excellent starting point in assessing a project’s ‘non-incremental’ strength. Working on the ERC proposal, one should constantly keep in mind the above discussion, and frequently question whether or not it falls within the realms of incremental work. A valid thought process in the context of the ERC will be to start by imagining something ambitious that has not yet been proposed. Successfully suggesting something that is so remarkably out of the box highly increases the chance of avoiding an ‘incremental process’ altogether. From there, two important actions should be considered. One – constantly review your work in light of the above “incremental” indicators. Finally – consider outside assistance that will be able to assess this together with you and find the best way to communicate it.