Prof. Gary Donohoe: Reflections on a successful ERC grant application

Gary is Professor of Psychology at NUI Galway and is co-director of the Cognitive Genetics and Cognitive Therapy group.  Click here for biography and publications list.


I’m very pleased to be able to tell you my story about making a successful application to the European Research Council (ERC).

When you arrive in the Covent Garden Building in Brussels for an ERC interview you take a deep breath. First of all, the name “Covent Garden” couldn’t be any more deceptive. It’s a 30-storey glass building with ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ security in the lobby, and not a nun in sight. Secondly, as you line up to have your documentation processed, you become aware of the other candidates representing some of the best institutions in Europe. The candidates before and after me in the queue were both from the University of Oxford. I couldn’t help but think of Dorothy’s line in the Wizard of Oz about not being in Kansas any more.

But in a sense, walking into that building is the home stretch of a long road in applying for an ERC grant.  My own story started a full year earlier, in September 2014 when I began thinking about applying; the deadline was five months later, in February 2015.  I had recently applied to SFI for an Investigator Award and didn’t get short-listed. I asked a colleague, John Cryan from UCC to read it and he mentioned several areas where the ‘story’ was hard to follow or didn’t make sense. I also realised that the grant had been shoehorned into the call and didn’t fit very well.

Yellow to covent

The Covent Garden Building in Brussels

I found the idea of applying to the ERC interesting because the ERC seemed focused on allowing researchers go off in a new direction with a novel project. My novel idea was to look at how immune dysfunction affects social cognition. I‘d become interested in immune function and cognition a couple of years earlier while studying the cognitive effects of the immune gene CSMD1. I started to wonder about whether immune genes affect cognition via a direct effect on neurons, or whether these effects were mediated via immune-related inflammatory processes. I also wondered about how early social environment might affect this relationship given that known impact of childhood stress on immune function.

My first step in the application was to talk about my ideas with a number of leaders internationally. Jim Van Os, a world leader on the subject of how detrimental environmental experiences influence brain development, was supportive and offered good advice on how I might think about the early social environment. Here in NUIG I also began talking to Declan McKernan from Pharmacology, who was already experienced in looking at immune based effects of chronic inflammation in the brain. Finally, I spoke to John Kelly, also in Pharmacology, about having an animal model component to the study. That turned out to be important later as a way of overcoming the problem of correlational studies, so as to establish the causal effects of immune dysfunction on cognition.

Once the idea started to take shape, the next step was to spend time thinking about what the ERC were looking for, and how to pitch the project in their ‘language’. I knew about the ERC catch phrase – ‘high risk, high reward research’ – but no one was able to tell me what that really meant! So in November I signed up on the ERC website, and downloaded the documentation. I went to hear the president of the ERC give a talk in the Royal Irish Academy. I spoke to Gary Lupton and then Ena Brophy in the Research Office, who suggested I attend a 1-day training workshop in Amsterdam run by Yellow Research – a company that specialises in the business of ERC grant applications.  Each of these things was enormously helpful.

High risk high reward

High risk, high reward research: the ERC motto

In December and January, I spent most mornings working on drafting the project and then the afternoons catching up on teaching and other work. At this stage, shutting myself off from distractions in the mornings was really useful. I enjoyed trying to figure out basic immunology and various immune cell functions in the brain. A bit like when you buy a car and then see the exact same model everywhere, I suddenly noticed how many people were focused on immunology. A lecture in Anatomy on the immune basis of Multiple Sclerosis really encouraged me to think there might be something in the idea that inflammation could be important in understanding neural disorders, with potentially important consequences for treatment.

The biggest block I came up against at that time was the constant sense of self-doubt. The statistics for the ERC are somewhat discouraging – a 10% success rate –  and by mid December I really wondered about the point of the whole exercise. I worried about whether I would be competitive and whether the whole thing was a waste of time. Two things kept me going at that stage. The first was that I was really enjoying the topic and felt the project was something I really wanted to do. The second thing was that NUI Galway had been spectacularly successful with the previous year’s applications – making it seem that an application was worthwhile.

First draft in hand by mid January, the day in Amsterdam really helped clarify for me what the ERC were looking for. For one thing, I wasn’t sure which ERC subject panel to apply to and Yellow Research were very helpful with this. They also recommended only applying to one panel (you can nominate a secondary panel), because of the risk of falling between two stools. The other main thing was to reinforce repeatedly the novelty and ‘blue skies’ nature of the work, as opposed to the more incremental flavour of most grant applications where you present your pilot data and show the reviewer that the project is a safe bet. In doing that they also made helpful recommendations about showing how you’ve thought about the risks in the project, and your contingency plans for mitigating these. One other thing that was said was that no one gets this award if they haven’t shown evidence of mobility prior to applying, but that didn’t turn out to be true in my case.

I heard a supervisor say once that there is a strong correlation between the number of people who read a manuscript and offer edits prior to submission and how likely it is that the paper will be accepted. This was something I relied on heavily in my application. I got detailed feedback from approximately 15 people and the feedback was extremely valuable. For the most part the comments highlighted points that needed clarification, and often simplification. The readers were a mixture of subject experts and Social science non-experts in the field, and people from other fields. The advice of subject non-experts turned out to make a huge difference when it came to clarifying in my own mind what the project was about  – this could be summarized as ‘keep it simple, stupid!’

keep-it-simple-stupid

The KISS principle, is key to a successful application

When the project was shortlisted a whole new circus started. For one thing you don’t get any feedback from the first round so you’re flying blind. But the couple of months spent preparing for the interview was probably the best experience of ‘team’ I’ve had since coming to NUI Galway. The Research Office was a tremendous support and organised mock interviews that really focused my mind. There is an informal club of previous ERC awardees in NUI Galway who are hugely supportive and generous with their time. I met with Marie-Louise Coolahan (English), Eilionóir Flynn (Law), and Martin O’Halloran (Engineering), each of whom had great advice about the interview process, what to expect, and how to prepare. I participated in three mock interviews, one organised with the IRC, one with Yellow research in Amsterdam, and one with a core group of people who either knew the ERC or my research area very well. This was much different from other grants I’d applied for. There was a genuine sense of people thinking that these awards were bigger than the individual who received them, and important for the university as a whole. A colleague who was previously knocked back at interview told me she felt it was partly because she wasn’t expert enough on some methodologies in the grant that she didn’t specialise in. I listened to this and as a result spent time in the university’s small animal laboratory going through immune assays in minute detail. I also went to the US to spend a week doing a statistics course that was specific to my application, funded by the research office.

One aspect of the interview was the preparation of a talk. Money available from Enterprise Ireland to support my application allowed me to employ a graphic design expert. I worked with a company called Proviz on slides – this was an iterative process and was enormously helpful in clarifying my message. The result was like something out of a brochure! So when I walked in the door of Convent Garden I felt that I couldn’t have been better prepared. In fact, when the interview ended I was apprehensive because the interview was much easier than the mocks had been and I thought the panel gave up too easily! In addition to the 15 people on the panel, 8 subject experts had reviewed the project. It was a credit to the local team that bating their questions had been so manageable. Having worked previously in other universities, I fully believe that the support available in NUI Galway surpassed anything I might reasonably have expected somewhere else. NUI Galway is the Hogwarts of ERC applications (“help will always be given to those who ask”).

dumbledore on the quad 2

NUI Galway is the Hogwarts of ERC applications

A good friend, commenting on my ERC success, reminded me that all success is simply failure deferred! What was a success on this occasion was built on a previous failure with my SFI program application, and no doubt other failures will come; but it’s failure we learn from most. The margins are small but important. With this in mind, I’d summarise my experience for anyone embarking on this process as follows:

  1. Start early. Novel ideas take time to develop, and even more time to describe comprehensibly (keep it simple, stupid…).
  2. Above all choose a project you really want to do some day. The process would be too boring otherwise.
  3. Believe in your project and in yourself as a candidate. Hundreds of others have been successful, and who are you not to be brilliant!
  4. Spend a lot of time getting to grips with what’s different about the ERC.
  5. Get feedback on your application from as many people as possible.
  6. Be the judge of the feedback you get – some will be more helpful than others.
  7. There is experience and generosity in NUIG – so use it!
  8. Get a good set of slides. It’s very good for your confidence.

And finally, given that this is a health psychology blog, remember, if you do want to go for it, remember that half of the six successful ERC awards so far this year went to the social scientists – the same as life science and natural sciences combined. So go on, and good luck!

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Prof. Gary Donohoe: Reflections on a successful ERC grant application | canisgallicus

  2. Immune system: Does this include Chronic Fatigue? If so, you may be interested in my WordPress January February entries. Traumatic injury=bipolar=anxiety=exhaustion for yrs=revolving door health. Now ‘drop dead exhaustion gone’ it is so invigorating although I am in fact 20 years older. The key is it is not registered in my brain as age ie there can be some advantages in Groundhog Day as a result of a being thrown from a horse in Zimbabwe resulting in fractured skull etc.

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  3. Pingback: Happy Health Psychology New Year: 12 Highlights from 2015 | NUIG Health Psychology Blog

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