Season 2

Episode 1 – An Interview with the European Research Council (ERC) on Writing and Evaluation of ERC Grants ft. Dr. Ino Agrafioti

Episode 1 Episodes list Episode 2

In this Episode, Srinath and Niko have a discussion with Dr. Ino Agrafioti, a scientific officer and coordinator for Panel LS1 of the ERC, about the European Research Council, its organization, the types of Grants it offers, how to write each part of your grant, and other important topics in the grant writing process.

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Srinath: Hello and welcome to season two of the Offspring Magazine the Podcast! We’re so glad to make it here after an amazing first season of the podcast. What do you think, Niko?

N: Yes, it was really nice!

S: Yeah, and we’re now back with season 2! And we’re gonna have some interesting episodes coming your way, and also sometimes changed new format for the episode so stay tuned for that! But let’s keep that all aside, and we come to the preview for the season 2 very shortly. But this episode is a very, very interesting one, it’s very relevant to people who are applying for the European Research Council based grants, which have deadlines coming up really, really shortly. So this first episode is an interview with one of the scientific advisory officers at the ERC, Dr. Ino Agrafioti. You want to elaborate a bit on that, Niko?

N: Yeah, so you know the starting grants for the ERC are quite important for PostDocs that want to start their own lab? So getting funding is always good and they provide some good amount. And that means if you get an ERC  grant, the chances that you get your own lab are quite high. So you would really want to apply for the ERC grants, if you can.

S: Definitely. And also just keep in mind, we’ve discussed a variety of topics regarding the ERC grants, the application form, what to write in each form, or part B1, part B2, etc., etc.. And also towards the end there’s something that Dr. Agrafioti, or I coined it for her, we called it the “seven commandments of Dr. Agrafioti for a good ERC application form”. So keep that in mind and make sure to listen to the whole episode, as we have discussed the variety of topics, including risk assessment, including what to put in different parts of your form, and everything like that. So stay tuned and listen to the whole episode. And we’ll see you on the other end of the discussion for some interesting information on the season two of Offspring podcast.

S: Dr. Agrafioti, welcome to Offspring Magazine the Podcast! We’re very happy to have you with us here today! Perhaps for our humble listener, could you please introduce yourself and your role at the ERC?

Dr. Ino Agrafioti: Hello! Thank you for inviting me my name is Ino Agrafioti, I am the coordinator of panels of the ERC. I’m a biologist by background, I studied in the UK, I did a degree in Oxford in Biological Sciences, and then a master’s in PhD in Bioinformatics at Imperial College London. I’m Greek, so I went back to Greece at the time, and I started working with astroparticle physicists. And there I had the opportunity to do a podcast with a colleague of mine, and I haven’t done one since, so it’s good to be back to do an episode again. And then I moved to France, worked in CNRS, and then helped people apply for the ERC, so when I actually got the job at the ERC, I knew also the other side – how it is to face this big ERC dream. And so I have these both backgrounds, and now I’ve been working for five years at the ERC, and I am a starting consolidator in Advance Evaluation, so I have seen probably more than 250 interviews, and have looked through thousands of proposals. So I’m very glad to be here to share some tips with your people.

S: Yeah, thanks for the introduction, it was really nice. And also you came around quite a bit, so maybe just as a start, could you maybe explain to us, what the ERC specifically is?

IA: So the ERC is three things. The first thing is funding. It’s part of, it was a part of Horizon 2020, now it’s a part of Horizon Europe. It’s around 17% of the budget of the whole program, which translated, in the case of Horizon 2020, to 13 billion Euros. Now, in Horizon Europe, it’s going to be around 16 billion Euros. And you might say, “okay, three billion Euros more is not so much”, but the thing is, you have to remember that this is for 27 countries, and the UK used to take 20% of the budget. So the excuse that there’s no money in research doesn’t count. Like there’s a lot of money, so, please, come and get it. That’s our point. Then, the second thing with the ERC, it’s the executive agency, that’s where I work, that’s where the financial officers work, that’s where we do all the implementation, and we take care of the financial aspects of the project. And then the third, and it’s last but not least, because it’s the most important, when you hear ERC in the news, you hear about the ERC Scientific Council. It’s run by 22 prominent scientists who are out there in the field, they are the ones who make the decisions: they decide where the budget goes, what kind of calls we have, what are our restrictions… So it’s them who make the decisions and it’s also them who appoint the panel members. It’s not like the rest of the Horizon programs, where people can apply to be a panel member. No, it’s the Scientific Council that takes people. So these are the three. We hear ERC, and it’s three things.

N: Okay, so with this, what does the ERC want to achieve? So what is the goal of it?

IA: So there are different aspects. First of all, they want to support the best science in Europe, because they found that there was a big gap in there and they wanted to create a competition at the European level. Then, they wanted to promote bottom-up frontier research, because they found that there was not enough funding, even at the national level, for this. And they wanted to attract people from all over the world to come to Europe, to do their research, and also to establish the next generation of top scientists to be in Europe. These were the main aims.

S: So, because ERC is a rather large organization, how is it structured? So how does someone, or which department exists, and how does one approach the ERC?

IA: So we’re around 520 people working at the ERC. So it’s quite a lot of us. And we have sort of, you could say, four departments. We have one department that is Communication. And also there is a unit that is supporting the Scientific Council. So when the Scientific Council says, “I want to find out about how many people from Germany are getting these grants”, then they produce the statistics, but they also help them with policy decisions and all that. Then, we have the Administrative Department which is HR, IT, lawyers, and all this. And then you have the Scientific Department – that’s where I belong. We have like loads of scientific officers because, basically, the ERC, we have panels, so in each panel you need to have a coordinator and scientific officers who work into it. So we are in three units. And we also do ethics screening after the projects have been funded, have been chosen, so we have a unit for this. And, of course, we have a unit to take care of all the Logistics, of the Call Coordination. And then we have, I think the biggest department is the Project Management Department because these grantees, they need support to how to make the grant agreements, the interim reports, and all. And these are the financial officers that do it. So that’s how we are structured.

N: Okay. Yeah, I mean 500 people – that’s a lot. I didn’t expect so many people to be working there. Maybe one thing you mentioned already before was Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, so are there some major differences between the two? Like they’re separate funding periods, right? So I wanted to ask if there’s some changes?

IA: So the idea: when they announced Horizon Europe, they said that it’s an evolution. So because of a lot of the things, and because Horizon 2020, in general, was well-received, they liked the effort done. For simplicity, to go a bit less bureaucracy and all that. So it’s continuing a bit towards that but there is a bit more focusing on Innovation. So they have created this thing called the European Innovation Council. And so that’s a bit like the ERC but it’s going to be a bit more different. And also they want to create more impact with what they call the EU missions. And these are the main changes. So if you want to know about the ERC itself, it stays more or less the same. There are small differences. Like the introduction of interviews in the Advanced Grant. Like, when reviewers write reviews between the step one and step two stage, from now on, they won’t put grades, they will say whether proposals be funded or not. And this is starting this year. And what else… And also the ERC panel structure has been updated. So from 2007 until now, we’ve had 25 panels, now we’re going to have 27 panels. And the choice of panel is very important when you write your application. So it’s very important that your people look at the descriptors, it’s at the end of the information of applicants, and they see what is in its panel.

S: Okay, so when you mention people apply, they apply for these grants, which is funded by the ERC, right? So what type of grants exist for junior group leaders or professors? And can you elaborate a little bit on that?

IA: So the first step, so we have three main grants: the Starting, the Consolidator, and the Advanced. So for you, it’s the starting grant. So that’s 2 to 7 years after the PhD. And this is what we call an eligibility window. This window can be extended. And if you want, I can tell you the reasons why this can be extended. But that’s where someone fits. And they need to have one publication where they have done a very big contribution to that, in order to apply. That’s the one criterion.

N: Okay, and what about the other grants? Could you also just give a description?

IA: Then, you have the Consolidator – that’s seven to 12 years after the PhD. So that’s the next step. And then you have the Advanced, which does not have a window. But, basically, you need to have 10 years of an excellent track record, that has shown leadership. So that’s a bit further up. And then, since 2018, we also have Synergy Grant but this is for multiple people. This is also eligible for someone who is at the starting ground stage. Synergy is for people of all ages.

N: Okay, so just to get this straight, so we have the Starting Grant for PostDocs, that just finished and then they want to start up their group. And then you have the Advanced Grants for the ones that already have their group, potentially. But, then…

IA: The Consolidator.

N: The Consolidator, yeah. And then, after that, is the Advanced. Yeah, that is for the fully established PIs. And then you have the Synergy Grants, which are based on collaboration though, right?

IA: Two to four people.

N: Two to four people, okay.

IA: And these are big grants, they’re like 10 million Euros, and for six years. But I should also say that the starting grant is 1.5 million. But we will talk maybe about the budgeting? If I could give one advice, because there’s a rumor that because we say two to seven years after the PhD, and there’s a rumor out there that you have to wait until the last moment, because then your profile will be most competitive, because you will have acquired the most publications and all that. And this is a real shame because we have statistics that show that the success rate is the same throughout all the years. It’s not like the success rate is higher for people who wait until the seventh year. And it’s very important people apply when they are ready not when it’s the last year. When you have the interesting data, that’s when you apply. And sometimes, because the competition is quite high, sometimes just like getting the feedback from all these external reviewers and the panel members is very useful for your proposal. And just tweaking it a bit it makes it successful. But if you have arrived at the end of the window, then you have to go immediately to the next stage, which is the Consolidator. And then you say, “ah, but I’m not ready yet, because I am just a starting person”. So then you have you wait for another five years. So the advice for us and for the panel – the most heartbreaking thing being giving A’s at step two, which means that if we had enough funding, you should be funded, – and for you not applying the next year… That’s what we call the unfunded days. Because we have a restricted budget so very often we have like, in my panel, say, we have 25 people for an interview, usually we have three or four people who get a B, everybody else gets an A, but we can only fund a few. So if these people cannot apply for the next year, it’s very sad for us.

N: Okay, so maybe we can just quickly talk about the grading of it. So you mentioned already there’s A’s and B’s, so how does this work?

IA: So the ERC evaluation process is a two-step process. So we get all the proposals. After the deadline, we distribute them to the panel members. And then they have to do remote evaluation and they have to give a grade from 2 to 10. Okay, so this 2 to 10 is for the project and for the PI. So 5 for the project, maximum, and 5 for the PI, maximum. And then we take all these grades and we’re sort of make a ranking list. Sometimes the panels use this ranking list, sometimes they don’t, because we want to make sure that we’re not influenced. Like if someone has very big grades that they will automatically go to the next round or not. So at this stage, step one – they get a C, a B, or an A. So if they get a C, they have to wait two years before they reapply; if they get a B, they have to wait one year; if they get an A, it means that they pass to the next stage. So if they get an A, what it means is that we send out the proposal to the external reviewers. These are picked by the panel members themselves, and we send them out and we usually ask for minimum three external reviewers. So in case someone is very positive and the other one is very negative, to have a third one that maybe points to one or the other direction. And, of course, it’s around four pannel members who have also looked at the proposal. That’s why, when people get back reviews, they usually have a minimum of seven reviews, sometimes ten, sometimes twelve, and they’re like, “whoa, so many people looked at my proposal”. So then these people, they go for an interview. And they come for an interview, and then at this step, we can give an A, which means that, if I had unlimited budget you deserve to be funded, or a B, which means that, even if I had unlimited budget your proposal is not working, so that’s a B. And it’s the A’s – the top, top, top A’s who get funded. That’s the shame.

N: Okay, so in this structure, after the second step, even if you have an A, it’s not automatically that you get funded, right? So what is the ratio? Do you have only a few proposals that you would say are funded based on their quality? Or how much does the quality differ in the A’s, then?

IA: It depends on the quality of the proposals and the panel. Like you have panels who just give A’s to the ones who get funded and they have no unfunded days. There are panels who have loads of the unfunded days, it depends on the quality. You have some years, you have like loads of really brilliant proposals. Some years we have fewer. It really depends on that. There’s no proportio. But what the Scientific Council wanted to do was to make sure that, once you go to step two, you know more or less that your success rate is 1 in 3.

S: Okay, so this actually brings us to an important point. Because we’ve been talking about what grade the proposals are given, but what kind of research does the ERC support? For example, if you have a certain research in certain fields. So how does the ERC decide how much funding is allocated to each area of research?

IA: So in the initial, when the ERC was created, they… So, first of all, you should know that there’s three domains we have: the Life Sciences, the Physical Sciences and Engineering, and the Social Sciences and Humanities. When ERC was created, they had put a certain percentage in these areas. I think it was like 39% for the Life Sciences, 40 something percent for the Physical Sciences, and like 15% or 17% for the Social Science and Humanities. But what happened was that depending on the number of proposals submitted, in some panels, the success rate was higher than in other panels. So they said, “this is not fair, we have to make sure that the success rate in all panels is the same”. So now the budget is allocated to different panels as according to the budgetary demand of its assigned proposals. So, for example, if in one panel, you have a hundred proposals submitted, and they all ask, say, two million, then this panel is considered that they are requesting for 200 million. In another panel, if it’s a 100 proposals that they ask for 1 million, then the budget is considered 100 million. And then they distribute the budget compared to that. And, of course, in some areas: in the Life Science, the Physical Sciences, and Engineering, you need more material: you need consumables, you need equipment. In some other areas, you don’t need… you just need a computer. So it depends on that. So it’s not the number of applications per se. But, of course, this is also interesting.

N: So, okay. So also the number of good applications that the panel wants to fund in the end…

IA: So this is the only problem with this system, is that this does not look at quality. Like it looks at numbers – we have 200 applications, that’s how we distribute the budget. It doesn’t look if these applications are good or not.

S: So the grading of the applications do not factor into this part?

IA: No.

N: Okay, so… I mean you’ve read a lot of applications in your time at the ERC, right? So what would you say, what is the kind of science that is being funded by the ERC? Because I mean saying “okay, the best science is funded” is quite subjective. I, as a neuroscientist, would say, “of course, neuroscience should be funded”. So do you have like an idea of what the science proposals should look like in order to be funded by the ERC?

IA: Okay, so, first of all, and just to say, we say that there’s no such distinguished distinction between basic and applied research. What we want to fund is frontier research. So you can have more applied and less applied, they can all be funded. And, what I wanted to say before is that there’s one criterion, which is excellence. And it’s very broad and very big. And we keep saying to the panel members – excellence is the only criterion. But this excellence applies to the project and it applies also to the So the excellence of the project is its groundbreaking nature, the potential impact, the scientific approach. And excellence of the principal investigator is intellectual capacity, creativity, and commitment. These are the things. So for me, the proposals that usually get the grant are the proposals that have both aspects strong. Okay, but when I say strong, I don’t mean that you have to have five first author Science papers in order to get it. But what makes your track record the important thing is that you have explained yourself and you showed your maturity in both aspects. Okay, so the proposal, the project itself, it has to be something new. It has to be based on your own previous work – you have to show that you have the skills and the tools to make it feasible. But it has to be something new and it has to have risks. And I think we will talk about risk a bit later on. Okay, so it has to have that, your own track record, you have to tell your story, and you have to explain what was your reasoning – how did you pick these five publications that you have to put in the starting run and what was your contribution? I can understand that having a million invitations for talks is not possible when you’re at the PostDoc level or PhD level, so you are judged for the stage you are in your career. Do not think, “oh, I have to put on my invitations and my awards, and I don’t have any!”. You’re not at the same level as an advanced grantee, you’re going to be just compared with your peers. So it’s important that the best proposals are the ones who have both aspects. And that they have some kind of innovation in the project.

S: And you mentioned risk just a while ago, and this brings me to my next question, because it’s often said, when, you know, when you’re having discussions with people from ERC or some evaluating committees, they say, “go for risky proposals, go for risky projects”. You know, because these are the ones which catch their eye. But how risky are the proposals supposed to be? Because how much risk is too much risk, right? Because there’s always a boundary that we need to adhere to, right?

IA: So, of course, they don’t expect you to have… the whole proposal to have high risk from start to end. And something that you should avoid is having the biggest risk at the beginning. Because then it’s very easy for the panel members to say, “ah, but it doesn’t work, the proposal is dead, the project is dead”. Okay, so it’s very important that you split the risk in work packages. So what I usually see is that people start with one work package that has low risk, second work package has more risk, last work package, they go a bit crazy. So it doesn’t have to be throughout the whole proposal – it can be, usually, people have three work packages. I don’t know if this is the magic recipe or not. And when I say work packages, you can call them as you want: aims, objectives – because there’s some distinction that we don’t have work packages in the ERC. But what is more important, and this is something that a lot of people fail at, the step one, is that there is this idea that you have to talk about your risk assessment only in the part B2. So the proposal that the ERC has two parts: part B1, which is read at the first stage, this part B1 has a five page summary of your project, and then your CV, and your track record; and part B2 is 15 pages, and it’s your whole project. So what people do is that they put the risk assessment only at the B2. Whereas the panel, once it is asked to judge feasibility, so at step one, they judge feasibility, step two they judge the methodology. In order to judge the feasibility, they need some kind of risk assessment. And it’s very often that you will see in final comments no risk assessments. So it’s very important that you write something in step one and in part B2 because it’s more of a proof of maturity, this risk assessment. Because it shows that you didn’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to do that”, “I thought about it. I thought okay, what if it doesn’t work…”. And for the starting grant, this is very important because it shows your maturity. And that’s what they like more.

N: Okay, so you were mentioning that there’s like different aims you have to have and that your first part shouldn’t be too risky. So how many preliminary experiments should you, for example, already have in your proposal that you did after your PostDoc that contribute to that project already? Because if you have a lot of experiments already you could say, “yeah, the aim is super secure”. The first aim or a work package. And then the other ones can be more risky. So yeah, what would you propose there?

IA: So, officially, you don’t need preliminary data, okay. What is more interesting for the panel is for you to have a hypothesis. The panels love hypothesis-driven research. So if you have a hypothesis and you can prove through the literature that what you’re proposing is correct, okay. So this thing that you need a lot of preliminary data is not… okay, it helps if you have some, but the whole point of the ERC is that we want to give the opportunity to everybody to get a grant, whether they have prior funding or not. Because usually to get preliminary data you need to have prior funding. And if in your host institution, if in your country, you cannot get it, then it’s problematic. So that’s why we say, you don’t need preliminary data but if you have it, it’s good. But it’s not like you have to give preliminary data for the whole proposal.

N: So it’s not like all the accepted proposals that you, guys, have had preliminary data?

IA: No. No, they have to prove that they can use… that they have the skills, okay. They can say, “okay, I have not tried using this equipment for this idea but I can show you through this publication that I had with my PostDoc supervisor, PhD supervisor that I have done this before…

N: Yeah, so maybe as the next question then, we can talk about the formal conditions that an applicant needs to fulfill in order to get the grant? So like, are there some criteria that you set for applicants, aside from the time after their PhD?

IA: So the eligibility criteria is that you have to have a PhD, you have to send us your PhD certificates, you need to be in the range, and you need to have a letter from your host institution. And this is why, we usually advise people, like even before writing your proposal, get in contact with your host institution’s project management office. Because they are the ones who will provide you with the letter. And you don’t want to have to chase the president of the university, or the president or the head of the Max Planck to sign your paper. And also, more importantly, that these people very often have a lot of experience and they can help you with your proposal: they can either show you previous proposals that have been successful, they can bring you in contact with other people that can read your proposal, they can even read the proposal themselves. Like, for example, what I used to do when I was in CNRS, I used to read people’s proposals just to see if it makes sense to a non-specialist. Because in ERC panels very often it’s generalists so it’s very important that you do that. Apart from that, we don’t have any other formal requirements.

N: I mean one thing that you mentioned briefly was that, depending on like, let’s say, you apply once, you’re just after your PostDoc, you apply and then you don’t get it. And now, depending on what grade you got, you cannot apply the next year immediately, right?

IA: Yeah, it’s the, what we call, the submission restrictions. These were put because the numbers of proposals at the beginning of the year were very high. So for C it’s two years, for B it’s one year. If you go to step two, you can apply the next year.

N: So, even if you get a B in the step two, then…

IA: Yes, you can apply the next year. So the restrictions are only for step one.

N: Okay, that’s good to hear. Yeah. But, I mean, I understand, right. I mean, you get like so many applications for every round.

IA: Yes, so it depends on the, of course, the number of panel members in it. Panel ranges between 12 and 17, so the more proposals a panel gets, the more panel members they have. But it’s true that there is a range. Panel members can read between 25 and 45 proposals at step one and, you can imagine, reading so many proposals, it’s not easy for them. It’s a very high workload so the easier you make their life, the better.

S: So, after submitting the proposals and, you know, being funded, what do these fundings technically include? So is there a restriction on the number of PhDs or PostDoc positions, for materials and equipment in different fields? So how are these assigned? Or is it up to the person who applied for the grant to decide on these?

IA: So it’s up to the person that applies. So it’s 1.5 million, that is the maximum that you can apply for in the Starting Grant. And within this, you have to always remember that there is this thing that we call an “indirect cost” or “overhead”, that is 25%. So, basically, say, if you want to ask for 1.5 million, the thing that you can ask for is 1.2 million, because then you have to add this 25%. So this money that you ask for. This cost, they can be personnel costs, they can be senior staff, PostDocs, PhD students, other personal cost, technicians… Then you can have subcontracting costs if you need to get a service, if you need something to be sequenced. And then you have purchase costs, you can get equipment, you can get consumables, travel. One very important cost is Open Access for papers because this is obligatory. And if you don’t publish Open Access, completely Open Access, you can get penalty. Now, we’re quite strict about that. And then, if you need to use, in the internal services, you can also put this on the thing and you can ask. We say 1.5 million is the maximum but you can ask one million more. And which are the cases where you can ask one million more, it’s if you are moving from outside Europe into Europe. So you can get, just get one million like that. And if you need to purchase major equipment. And the panels always ask us, what is the definition of a major equipment – we don’t have a very precise definition but, like, it should be something that is at least more than 150,000, something like that.

S: Like microscopes.

IA: Yes, they would consider that. Because sometimes we see major equipment, 20,000 Euro, and then the panels are like, “this is not really major, but this is 150,000 Euro”… My definition is not the official definition so I’m just trying to guide people.

S: You are just doing the ballpark figure that we want to keep in mind. Okay.

IA: Yes, the access to large facilities, like if you need to use, I don’t know, synchrotrons, or if you want to go and work in CERN. And then there is a fourth category that has been added, that is called “other major experimental and fieldwork costs”. So if you are an archaeologist and you need to go to Ethiopia to dig a site – that’s also an extra thing. So these are the things. So some information about the budget. So the budgets are only seen at step two. And this is part of… And we are asking panel members to have a very careful look at the budget. And panels do not do micro-management, they will never say, “ah, your salary is too big”, okay. They will never say “ah, I think these consumables, they’re asking too much”… They do not do this kind of because they don’t know how much it costs. Maybe they know how much it costs in Germany but they don’t know how much it costs in Lithuania. So there are some cases where they do budget cuts, okay, and this is on proposal by proposal basis, and they have to justify it, why this funding is justified at least. We have heard that there’s a rumor there to ask for the maximum because either way they will cut it down. So it’s better to ask for more, so then you get what you’d like. But if you ask for more, then it’s inflated, and they can see, the panel members can see that it’s inflated, so they cut it anyway. So just ask for the money that you really need. Also in terms of supervisory experience: if you’re a PostDoc and you have supervised like one PhD student with your head of lab, I would say, do not say, “okay, I’m going to hire five PostDocs”. Like put some PhD students there, make sure that even in part B1 you say, “okay, these are the team members I’m thinking of hiring. And I’m thinking okay, for this task, the PhD student will be okay. this is more advanced, I will need a PostDoc with this expertise”. This information, it’s not needed in part B1 but if you put them in it makes the panel think that you have really thought through your project and they want to learn more in part B2.

N: So, basically, it’s free for the people to decide what they want to use their budget on? Like as long as they can reason why they need it. And then if they have like something really big, let’s say, I don’t know, like sequencers or like large equipment, then it’s okay to apply for more funding. But this is then separate from the original funding?

IA: Yeah, you have to… there’s a separate box where you have to specifically justify why you need this equipment. And if I may say, do not say, “oh yes, my department has one of them but I would like to have one for my personal use”. This doesn’t work very often because the panel can say, “okay, they have one in the department, we might as well… there’s no point giving them the money for it”.

S: Okay, so let’s move on from the funding part, because I think we’ve been discussing rather extensively about it, into the research evaluation part itself. So how accurate or what sort of scientific criteria do the ERC use to evaluate the research proposals? And how important is the publishing history of the person who’s applying?

IA: So, as I mentioned before, we say excellence, it’s the only criterion, okay. So both, for the project and the PI. And okay, so as far as publishing history is concerned, so in the Starting Grant, you’re asked to select five publications. If you don’t have five, you put as many publications as you have. And so this is a part of it, so you have two pages for your CV and two pages for your track record, so this is in your track record. And what panel members really love, and they get really upset that the applicants do not give them the information, is that, for each of these five publications, you need to say what is your contribution and maybe why did you choose it. Like, for example, you could say, “in this paper, I did this part of the paper, and this shows I have the skills for aim 1.2. I am putting this paper because this is my paper with the most citations and I found that in here I was the most creative”… Like give information for these five papers. They do not have to be Nature and Science. More important is to say, this paper, it changed this in the field, or like this is what happened. So they like this more. And also in the track record, at the beginning before you put these five publications, you can say your story: “I started with doing a degree in this. Then, I was interested in this. And that’s how I chose my PhD supervisor and my project. Then, I was like, okay, I need to get this other skill, I want to do my PostDoc there, and this is where I see myself going”. So it’s important that you say your story. You put your publications, okay. Then, if you have conferences you have presented, you put them there. Depending on the field, there are some conferences that give awards. There are some other conferences that don’t give awards. So I’ve never heard, in all the panel meetings I’ve never heard like, “we can’t give that to this person because they don’t have like top impact publications”. Like I’ve never heard any of that or the h-index is not good enough. Never, not even the Advanced Level. Like, especially at step two, the more weight is put on the project rather than the PI. Because, even though you have these two things and the panel members, they need to give a grade out of five, the weight of the two is decided by the panel. So very often, at step two they put more emphasis on the project rather than on the PI.

N: Okay, so maybe with this emphasis in the first step on the PI, to some extent… Are there some ways, in which you make sure that your evaluation process is not biased? Because I mean the person, the PI, then, is kind of, if they are the center point in the first part, there might be some unconscious bias, for example. So do you also check your history of funding, of funded proposals? Like if there’s some bias by chance? Not by chance but if there’s some bias that you might have to address?

IA: So, today that we’re filming is actually International Women’s Day. So it’s just to say that the bias, we started to look at it through the gender bias aspect. And actually a couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation specifically on the gender. And so they started from the very beginning of the year by having a Gender Issues Working Group that had a gender equality, a strategy that started putting a lot of measures in place. So, for example, if you are if you’re a woman, that you have had a child, you have an extension to the eligibility window. This was 18 months if the child is after the PhD. Then what they did is, that and they flipped the proposal the other way around so before, when someone read the proposal, you started with the PI, and then you went to the project. And they found that could influence how people see the project. So now they start with the project and then they see the CV and the track record. And there used to be a section on leadership potential where the PIs had to self-evaluate themselves, and they found that some people were better at this than others, so this was removed. And then they found that some people are publishing more but lesser quality and some people publish less but bigger quality. So that’s why they restrict it to five publications, so the panel members are able to more easily people with different numbers of publications. And then around 2016 we started showing a video to panel members that points to them to biases. And we’ve watched this video so many times, it’s very cringy, but it makes the point come across. And we have a slide in the briefing that we give the panel members, „make sure that you take into account unconventional career paths, take into account career breaks, do that“. So up to then, we used to talk about gender bias, but in 2018 we started talking about unconscious bias. And what they thought was to give training to us, scientific officers that are in the room, to be able to identify and to make us aware of some unconscious biases that department members could have. And that’s like authority bias, conformity bias, like status quo bias, and all this. But it was it was one of the best trainings I’ve ever had, it was amazing, and it gave us also the opportunity to discuss amongst ourselves like what happens when we see that, what do we do. So now our eyes are open. I mean they have always been open but like now, like we are trained to do this. And if I may, I can make a prediction that in Horizon Europe, I think this group, that is called gender issues now, is going to be called unconscious bias in the future. Because we are looking a bit more general and they are talking about it. So this is what we’re doing and there are measures. And the truth is, that these measures, at least in case of women, they have worked. Now the success rate of women and men is the same, sometimes for women is a bit higher we may say. So the number of applications is at all levels, it’s higher than the proportion of women out there. So it seems that by taking simple measures, you can make a difference out there. But in terms of monitoring, we don’t do any specific monitor, other than looking at the statistics to see how many people from these countries, how many women, and so on.

S: It’s very nice that there were a lot of proactive measures, which were taken to sort of make sure that this bias that, you know, which exists, like, naturally to be reduced and, you know, make it more aware. So bring it forefront so people are aware of what they’re talking about. So is there something that you think could still be improved in the whole evaluation process, other than just the biases? Or is there something that you wish could be improved as a part of the whole process?

IA: So one thing I would also like to add is that, I have to say that, what is impressive is that the panels, at the same time as us being more aware of this issue, also as the panel members are aware of these issues. And I find it amazing when I see the self-monitor, they say, “oh, I should not have said that”. Like, “pretend I didn’t say it”. Like, “oh no, you should not say that, this is not correct. Let’s go back to the excellence”. So it’s quite good. And so in what is going to be improved, I think is because the Scientific Council joined DORA (I don’t know if you had have heard of DORA?) and only a few months ago. So I assume that we are going to go towards this direction. Because still, even if they don’t mention it in the panel meetings, I see that panel members, they do say, “okay, this person has so many citations in there”, not so much in the Starting Grant, more in the Consolidator, in Advance. But it will be better if these things are really out of the way. And so I think this is the idea: if people can present their publications without putting the metrics, it would be a big improvement as well.

S: Okay, that’s very interesting to hear. We actually had a discussion with a person, whose research was on research, in the previous series of episodes. I think we got to learn a lot about DORA then. And it’s nice to see that the ERC is taking steps, as one of the biggest funders in Europe, to really take this into consideration as well. So we just have a few, now, a few general questions about the ERC to address. So how many applications are actually approved every cycle? And do you see there’s a trend of the number of applications increasing with every, like, renewal of the ERC?

IA: Okay, so what we have found is that the number of applications, it’s quite responsive to the budget available. I don’t know how people do it but it’s like the more budget we have, the more applications we get. So we are expecting now, that we have a bigger budget, more applications to come. We are preparing emotionally for this. But, for example, in the beginning of a framework program, like, what we call Horizon 2020, all right, in Europe, the budget is a bit, like, it’s a bit stable. And then, it starts going up. So then we see, on average, it’s 7600 proposals per year. And we fund around 940. But you will see when we announce the dates, that we say that we have this budget and we expect to fund these people, this number of people. And then this you can compare, compared to the previous years. So it’s, generally, if the budget goes up, it goes up; but down, it goes down. The success rates for Starting Grant have remained more or less stable, between 13% and 14%, it’s the highest success rate that we have. The lowest is in Advance, which can be 7% or 8%, and then that is really very tough. So in the Starting Grant, I mean they say this, social scientists that are looking into science and technology studies, they say that a good evaluation is when the success rate is around 15%. So we’re close to that. So it’s quite fair.

N: I mean, how has the number of grades, or has that changed? Like, is there always a number of C grades, and B grades, and A grades in the first step? Or is this also improving or becoming worse?

IA: So this depends on the panel, okay. So you can have panels that have very few C’s and panels that have many C’s, it depends on the quality of the proposals that they receive. So the Scientific Council is not giving any instructions. And I don’t, I have to admit, I don’t have statistics on the B’s and C’s, or A’s. But yeah, in my panel at least, I know that the quality is increasing – this is what the panels say.

N: I mean that’s nice then. Like, it’s nicer to review the proposals, I guess, if they’re good. Okay, so maybe then, instead of talking about the proposals themselves, rather the projects that were funded by the ERC. So do you have some kind of, or do you follow up on those projects that were funded to see if they are successful or not? And if so, what do you deem being a successful project?

IA: Okay, so the ERC is actually one of the very few agencies, maybe the only one, that we do post-project evaluation. Okay, so what we do is that, so we have, two years after the project has ended, we get scientists for each panel. So we have these 25 little panels. And with three to four scientists, say that there are three scientists in a panel. Two of them, they have some experience with the ERC. And the third person has nothing to do with ERC: they have never applied, they are not a grantee, they are not a panel member. Because we don’t want to self-congratulate ourselves, we want to have someone out there to to be able to keep us in line. And they look at them, the final report submitted by the PI. So it’s very important, if someone is a grantee, that they write good reports. And they look at the publications that have come out of the project. Of course, you could say, two years after the end of the project, you cannot really see the impact, but at least they can compare how things were when the project was funded to now. And they do this evaluation, and they look at different questions, like the scientific impact, the introduction of new methodologies, interdisciplinarity, and a little bit the societal and economic impact. In some disciplines, you can see it more obviously than in others. So at the end, they give four kinds of grades: they give A, B, C, or D. A is a scientific breakthrough, B is a major scientific advance, C is incremental scientific contribution, and then D is no appreciable scientific contribution. All right, so we’ve been doing this since 2015, for five years, and, on average, it’s between, (because it depends, it’s a sample, you can take a sample of all the projects), it’s between 18 and 25% of the projects are breakthroughs. And then you have between 40 and 60%, that there are major scientific advances. And then you have around 20%, there is an incremental. And 4-5% that is, you know, contribution, these are completely failed projects. So we have been doing that. So they have been looking at whether the high risk has paid off in a good way or a bad way. Because they’re scientists they can find out, “okay, yes the high risk was high, and the projects, in a sense, failed because of this high risk, but they found out something different, and this ended up being a scientific breakthrough”. So it’s not fixed, how it’s done, but it’s very positive for us to see that we have the scientific breakthroughs. And it’s good to see that we have some impact. Because payoff in our project, they do not have very direct societal impact now. But for me, very often, they say. “oh, we have 70% scientific breakthroughs or major scientific advances”, it’s 25% breakthroughs, a lot of major scientific advances, let’s not exaggerate.

S: But that does, this evaluation of a certain project in a specific field, have an impact on what amount of funding is allocated to that field later on?

IA: The panels would like that but no. Because it’s a random sample…

N: And how large is the random sample, actually?

IA: It’s a 10%. It’s 10 of the of the projects that finished two years before the evaluation.

N: Okay, so you do this every year, as well?

IA: Every year. But this year, we’re not going to do it because a lot of the people, they found that because they usually have nine projects to look at, and the nine projects is not so much to bring them to Brussels. To do so, now, I think we’re gonna do it every two years, to have a bit of a bigger range of projects.

N: Lastly, maybe now, that we’ve covered like, most of the topics, and maybe we can go to the European Parliament? Because this is the one that decides on the budget also for the ERC and so on, right? So how supportive is the European Parliament of the ERC? And do you have to report to them, like, every now and then?

IA: So the decision is taken through this trial log, where you have, like, the Commission making a proposal and then the Council and the Parliament looking at it. And then, they are trying to negotiate between the two of them. But, thank God, we have the European parliament because the European parliament is very supportive of the ERC. And even for Horizon Europe, they even blocked the overall EU budget for some time, because they didn’t think that Horizon Europe had enough money, okay. After the negotiations, they added 4 billion Euro. I mean, it’s not little, four billion Euros. And only one of these four billion came to the ERC but, nevertheless, they are very supportive. A lot of the MEPs, they collaborate a lot with us. Whenever they need information, we give them. And we had the very big chance of having some here Bourguignon come back because we had a bit of an upheaval at the beginning of last year, in terms of president, and so he came back and he fought a lot. But we also had this other thing called, it’s an organization that opened last year, called the Friends of the ERC, and they also launched the petition that went to the European Parliament. And they were able to support us even more. So European Parliament, there they really are our friends.

N: That’s nice to hear.

S: It’s very good to hear. And I think with that, we’ve come to the end of our list of, you know, prepared questions, but you mentioned to us previously, before we started recording, that you have Seven Commandments of Dr. Agrafioti, which you want to give to people. So perhaps you can go ahead with the list that you have prepared?

IA: First of all, I want to say that the deadlines for 2021 were announced 10 days ago. So now you know that it’s the 8th of April. So I’m not sure, this is quite soon, if people have time to prepare a proposal, but we are thinking that maybe next year they will. Because, normally, the starting deadline is in October so we are going to go back closer to that. So the information is on the website of the ERC. So you can find what is part B1, part B2 works, and also that we’ve done recently some videos on the ERC youtube channel that are, basically, with Corona, we were not able to travel, okay, so we can, so we found that we could not really spread the information, so these five videos, they are based on actually mine information session. So I wrote the script. So if you go there, you will find how to write part B1 part B2. So go there. But some points that I wanted to give specifically for Starting Grant is that, like, as I said, before, pick your panel first, it’s very important. Look at what are they, the descriptors, what we say inside, that gives you an idea of the expertise. And look at who was at the panel two years ago so you can see more or less what kind of people are going to be in the panel. And help us help you by putting the keywords. So in part when you start your proposal, in part A, you can give us descriptors and keywords. Do not think, “oh, this is administrative, it doesn’t matter”, this is what we use to allocate your proposal to panel members, okay. So if you don’t give us information, you are making our life difficult, and you might have inappropriate pannel members So this is the one point for part B1. Remember it’s for generalists so do not put too much jargon, not too much highlighting, okay. Something doesn’t have to be, like, bold/underlined/italic, all at the same time. And try to, yes, you have to give some of the keywords: “groundbreaking”, “inovative”; but to not feel too much. Because then, department members get, they’re scientists at the end of the day, you’re not a car salesman, okay. So there’s a lot of effort, a lot of emphasis on these words. But the scientists would like a bit to be toned down for your CV. We call it a “recommended CV template”, but you can consider it obligatory because this allows, as I said before, panel members to compare this 25 to 45 proposals better. So by making their life easier, you make your chances for success better. And remember, in the Starting Grant, you have to show that you are the leader of the project. And since you’re not so used to being the leader, you’re usually in a collaboration of the head of your lab with someone else. And yes, you can go and have collaborators for techniques that you want to introduce into your lab but make sure that they don’t have the sort of power on it. So, basically, if you want to get a new skill, take your PostDoc, put it in the other lab, and make sure that you mention that they come back because, otherwise, it looks more like a consortium, and this is something the ERC doesn’t panels do not like. Very important: choose an easy to remember acronym because the people in the panel, they have to debate at the end and they need to be able to say, “oh no, I think this proposal should get it”, but if your proposal is “xy123856”, by the time the panel member has said it, it’s a bit too late. And yeah, well, as I said, do not leave it for the last moment of the eligibility window. And I had gone last year to a retreat of Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry PostDocs, it was a wonderful time. I had spent two days with them, and I went to them, and I wanted to say to them, “okay, so you’re here, at the Max Planck, so I expect every single one of you to apply”. Because the rest of Europe says, “oh, I’m not good enough to apply because I’m not in the Max Planck,” so I was very surprised that not everybody wanted to apply for an ERC grant, okay. So if you people do not apply, then who else is going to apply? So this is the message: there is funding available, you are in the top institutions, you have nothing to lose – it’s an opportunity for you to write a proposal, to think, “okay, where do I want to be in five years time?“. But even if you don’t get the grant, you can give the feedback, you can apply for national funding. For me, there is no excuse, why you should not, why everybody should apply for. So good luck!

N: Thanks a lot for the tips! And I hope you don’t get too many applications now.

IA: It’s okay, we like applications, it’s the panel members that have to read them.

S: Oh well. I mean, I think it’s better to give them, or make them, make their job more difficult by giving a strong application, rather than giving them, you know, eliminating criteria in your application. Okay, I think with that, we’ve come to the end of our discussion for today. It’s been a real pleasure, talking to you. Thanks a lot for joining us. Actually, I think today has been like an information overload for me.

N: Yes.

S: These past 40 minutes, discussing the different things again, I will really appreciate you for your time. And thanks a lot for joining us!

IA: Thank you, it’s been fun!

S: Okay, that was a wonderful discussion with Dr. Ino Agrafioti. I hope this information is helpful for all of you who are applying. Niko, you have anything to add to that?

N: Yeah, I mean, I think the one takeaway from me is definitely that I shouldn’t be afraid to apply for those ERC grants. Because, as long as I consider the deadlines, and so even if I get a C in the first round, I can still apply two years later, if it’s within the seven years after my PhD. So let’s see if I can make it work till then.

S: I think one thing that she mentioned was that, please don’t wait until you’re seven years after your PhD to apply because that’ll be, I mean, you’re towards the end of the bracket. So just make sure that if you feel confident enough, you apply, and if, you know, if not, try to gain some confidence by, you know, thinking…

N: You get the feedback – that’s also the helpful thing, right? So you’re getting some feedback, even if you’re rejected in the first round, as far as I’ve understood. So getting feedback on a proposal from experts is quite good.

S: Yeah, definitely. Anyway, so I think with that, we’ve come to the end of this episode. So just keep in mind that this episode is rather abrupt. And we’ve brought this on soon because we know the ERC deadlines are coming up very soon. But we will have a preview episode with all the upcoming different discussions that we’ve planned, and different types of interviews that we have planned for season two, coming up next week, or in two weeks rather. So keep that in mind and stay tuned. Then, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write to us at Offspring.podcasts@PhDnet.mpg. Until then, Niko and I are saying sayonara and we can’t wait for you to meet a new team!

N: And good luck to all the people that are applying to the ERC!

S: Definitely! Good luck to everyone! Adiós!

S: Offspring Magazine the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Plank PhD in the Science Communication Working Group, known as the Offspring Magazine. The intro-, outro- music is composed by Srinath Ramkumar. The pre-intro jingle is composed by Gustavo Carrizo. Please feel free to write to us with any feedback, comments, or suggestions. And the new hosts of the Offspring Magazine the Podcast, which includes Srinath Ramkumar, Nikolai Hörmann, Allison Lewis, Adrian Lahola, Sandra Fendle, Beatrice Langsberger, and also Simon Sündorf. So can’t wait for you to meet the whole new team in the next episode. Until then, stay tuned, and it’s Srinath signing off, on behalf of the rest of my team! Bye-bye!

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