• Playing the Grant Game

    No guts, no glory

    Talent Development may sound like an agency for child actors, but it’s for researchers at the RUG who want to get the big grants.

    in short

    Talent Development is a small, central programme in the University consisting of a team of four RUG staff members.

    They collaborate with a network of faculty funding officers across the entire university who may go by a variety of titles, such as EU project officer or funding coordinator.

    Their goal is to provide support for researchers in finding, preparing and applying for grants. Their aim is to increase the number of RUG researchers applying for grants on all levels.

    In 2014, around 50 RUG staffers applied for Veni grants – in 2015, nearly 80 applied.

    The first contact person for researchers should be their faculty funding officer. The programme’s staff is located inside the Academy Building.

    Getting grants is only growing more competitive, and a university’s reputation and position in various rankings relies heavily on the number of high profile grants its researchers win.

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    The department, coordinated by Dean Ritsert Jansen, is a team of human resources and research and valorization advisors who collaborate with officers in every University faculty. Their mission: to make sure that researchers know what grants are out there and how to get them.

    The Talent Development programme officially started in the fall of 2011, even though Jansen and his team have provided grant guidance since 2008. He wants to make the process personal. ‘The grant panel really wants to see who the candidates are – they want to taste their guts! They want to know how serious and excited they are, but can you train for that?’

    Veni, Vidi, Vici

    Well, kind of, according to Jan Anton Koster, a researcher in applied physics. He won a Vidi grant in 2014. Worth 800,000 Euros, the Vidi is given to young researchers – it’s the second level in the Veni, Vidi, Vici grant scheme by NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

    Koster recalls the Grants Week 2013. Organised by the RUG and UMCG, Talent Development brought together hopeful grant candidates and previous winners to learn about what worked for them. ‘There’s a bit of stating the obvious, encouraging you to be excellent in order to get the grant. You can hear from someone saying how they got the Nobel Prize’, he says. But since every researcher’s subject, presentation and proposal are vastly different, providing standard advice can be tricky and may not always be enough.

    Writing skills are the main focus during Grants Week, but the key for the grant candidates is not to seem trained. ‘It should be you that we’re looking at, not an overly made-up, empty, meeting version of you’, Jansen says. ‘Authenticity can be felt, you can feel it when someone is so enthusiastic and such an expert, and so willing to discuss this with you.’

    Researchers who have worked with their faculty funding officers are grateful for the help, although most of the so-called FFOs do it on the side – only a couple of faculties have a staff person whose full time job is helping researchers apply for and, hopefully, get grants.

    Grant team

    Although the network of officers has become better known over the past year, not everyone at the RUG is aware of their existence. Each institute and academic faculty at the RUG has one or more people on staff whose responsibility it is to help researchers identify and apply for grants. At UMCG, they have an entire grant team, and each individual institution within the Math and Science faculty has a minimum of one person dedicated to the task.

    Grant game statistics

    Beyond the clear benefit of researchers being able to fund their work, the biggest grants – ERC Advanced and Spinoza – influence the prestige and rankings of the university.

    The numbers

    Rubicon: €63,000

    The Rubicon programme allows recently graduated scientists to gain experience at a foreign top institute. This is an important step up in a scientific career.

    Veni: € 250,000

    Innovational Research Incentives Scheme Veni is a grant for researchers who have recently obtained their PhD.

    Vidi: € 800,000

    The Innovational Research Incentives Scheme Vidi allows researchers who have already spent several years doing postdoctoral research to develop their own innovative lines of research, and to appoint one or more researchers.

    Vici: € 1.5 million

    Vici is targeted at outstanding senior researchers who have successfully demonstrated the ability to develop their own innovative lines of research, and to act as coaches for young researchers.

    Spinoza: € 2.5 million

    The NWO Spinoza Prize is the highest Dutch award in science. NWO awards the prize to Dutch researchers who rank among the absolute top in their field. Theunis Piersma, a professor of migratory bird ecology, won the Spinoza this year and was the first researcher at the RUG to win it in ten years. The RUG has also won one in 2004, 2000 and 1996.

    2008: UvA, VU, Radboud, Wageningen
    2009: UT, LUMC, Wageningen
    2010: UL, UL, UU, UL
    2011: Nijmegen, UvA, UvA
    2012: Radboud, Radboud, UvA, UL
    2013: Radboud, VU, UU
    2014: RUG, UL, UL, TU Delft

    While Koster got help in drafting the budget for his winning proposal on the faculty level, he feels that Talent Development is really what took him further. He found out last May that he won a Vidi grant to research changing the materials used in solar cells to increase their efficiency. He was obviously pleased by the news, but mostly, he was relieved. ‘Now, I can at least sleep at night. The process of applying isn’t exactly fun. There is a lot of pressure. I’m very excited about the research, but I’m more excited about getting a Vidi.’


    He also won a Veni grant in 2011, but this time, he and other successful grant applicants found one part of Talent Development particularly useful: a company called Whitehorne. ‘They were won-der-ful! They helped me so much, I want to use them always.’

    Who are they? They are two people in the nearby village of Leek who help applicants with every step of the application process. Their full title is Whitehorne Scientific Consulting. ‘Whitehorne does what no one else has any time to do: actually sit down for a good few hours, go through the proposal, restructure it, and give comments and suggestions to rephrase and restructure it.’

    ‘So, I applied their changes, and that’s not magic. That’s something you could really learn.’

    Looking the same

    But Martijn van Leusen, who recently won a 750,000 euro NWO grant, worries that going to consultants may erase that sought-after individualism by making all the applications sound alike. ‘Imagine that you are a member of one of the NWO reading panels and must plough through 30 or 40 proposals for a preliminary assessment and ranking – then you’d get quite annoyed if they all look the same and any flaws have been carefully removed by these people.’

    Van Leusen and professor Peter Attema, researchers in the Groninger Institute for Archeology, found out in January that they had won a grant in the NWO Free Competition Humanities Programme. The funding will be applied to research the cultural and demographic consequences of the Bronze Age eruption of Mount Vesuvius, known as the Avellino Event.

    Going to Whitehorne was a little bit challenging for some other grant applications. Joanne van der Woude, a lecturer in the arts department, says, ‘As a literature person, I’m attached to my prose, but they gave great feedback.’ Van Der Woude also won a Vidi grant in 2014.

    Although she’s won about a dozen fellowships before, including several at Ivy League universities in the United States, she was still thrilled at being awarded the Vidi grant. She will be using her funds to research poetry on heroes among the settlers, Native Americans and slaves in colonial America.


    She had applied for the Vidi in 2013 as well, but didn’t get it: ‘In 2014, I knew the ropes.’ She practiced her five-minute-long Powerpoint presentation approximately ‘a zillion times’, but it was still intense. ‘The interview is completely overwhelming. You walk into a room with a committee of about 15 people, and you can’t remember who’s who and what they do.’

    For her interview, Talent Development also arranged for a session with a theater expert to work on making a good impression, she says.

    Koster and Van Der Woude have already begun their newly-funded research, and Koster is certain that the RUG needs Talent Development for the future. ‘It would be ridiculous to not have such an institution, we can’t do without it.’

    While Van Leusen and Attema have applied for grants many times before, Van Leusen says that the help that he got on the faculty level from full time FFO Peter Meister-Broekema was more effective than anything else this time around. ‘If you go higher up to university-level help, the help has to be of a more general kind, and is therefore less useful.’


    Be that as it may, Jansen sees a more centrally-focused approach as effective. ‘Talent Development offers extensive support for our top scientists who can win ERC Advanced Grants and the Spinoza prize’, Jansen says.

    He somewhat calculatingly describes the university as a factory. ‘New people come in annually, and the majority – almost everyone – eventually moves out.’ That means that Talent Development’s main task is to help those researchers increase their market value. More grants mean a better-looking CV, and a better chance of finding bigger and better jobs elsewhere.

    That coming and going of researchers is a matter of supply and demand, but also a necessity in the grant game. As a researcher moves further along into his or her career, only the most elite and best-funded grants are available and there are just fewer of them. ‘There are some faculties who have senior staff, beyond Vici – there are basically only ERC advanced grants available to them’, Jansen says. ‘That’s pretty competitive.’

    Wake-up calls

    And success builds on itself: previous winners simply win more. Since 2008, Radboud University in Nijmegen has won five NWO Spinoza grants, worth 2.5 million euros – four are awarded each year at most. In that same time period, the University of Amsterdam has won four, as has the University of Leiden. In 2014, Professor of Global Flyway Ecology Theunis Piersma won one for his work in Groningen – it’s the first time in ten years that a RUG researcher has managed that impressive feat.

    The funding officers and Talent Development want to make sure that Groningen becomes and remains one of the winners. But sometimes, they have to make the first move by inviting researchers to apply for grants on time. ‘We provide wake-up calls to inform them that there are opportunities out there for them.’

    That is what Peter Meister Broekema does full time. He is the faculty funding officer for the Faculties of the Arts and Theology, and has been doing it since October 2013. ‘If you have to do a lot of teaching and a lot of researching, it can be hard to see all the opportunities out there because there are 2,000 foundations in Holland alone’, he says. ‘There are also a lot of European and collaborative grants, so it’s hard to get a grasp on what is available.’

    ‘A lot of people are really relieved that there is someone out there who can help them out in the jungle of all the grants that are out there,’ he says.

    ‘We want our share’

    Although faculty grant officers are out there knocking on doors reminding researchers to get on it, the culture is changing too, Jansen says. Some departments, like UMCG and the Faculty of Behavioral Science, have been good at it for a long time. ‘Now, each faculty is thinking: “We want our share of the grants.”’

    Jansen attributes broader Dutch success in applying for ERC grants to the training provided by the Veni Vidi Vici scheme. Since researchers have grant application experience, they know better what to expect and how to prepare for the bigger money. The Netherlands is among the winningest EU countries for the ERC grants – Jansen thinks they just know how to get them. ‘In Europe, ERC money goes to places where they know how to play the game. If you aren’t doing it, you’re losing.’

    What is NWO looking for?

    According to Olivier Morot, a communications advisor at NWO, there isn’t an exact formula for guaranteed success when applying for a grant. Each grant ‘call’ has specific criteria, such as ‘the quality of the application, how innovative the proposal is and other aspects like knowledge utilization and so on. Moreover, every application is individually assessed on how those criteria are being met’, he says. ‘But there is no standard of how a resume should be. This will depend on different factors, such as the disciplinary background and research experience of the applicant.’

    Morot says it’s better for universities to be strategic about who they support in the grant game rather than just encouraging everybody to apply. ‘The application phase is a time consuming process, and the more applicants, the lower the chance on success for the individual applicant. Therefore, it is better for the applicants to apply only when they have a good chance of being awarded funding. Universities can play a role by actively stimulating only the candidates who have a good chance of receiving funding for their proposal.’

    In 2013, the award rate for all NWO programmes was 25%: 5,268 grant applications were submitted, and 1,318 of them were awarded funding.