It’s the period of proposals and applications for grants, and therefore time for a quick article on how we get money to do research.

Spoiler alert: Not like this

Projects, Grants, and Funding Agencies

Imagine you are a researcher in a university. Unless you accessed the Academic Holy Grail and got a tenure position, your salary is not paid by the university but thanks to projects you are working on or grants you managed to secure. It is for sure the case for a large majority of postdocs. It is therefore not enough to have an awesome idea, this idea needs to be connected to a project. There exists a lot of different types of projects, from the gigantic one including more than 70 partners 1 to the small one targetting strategic innovation. Projects can be applied, i.e. aim at developing something close to a product, or more theoretical, i.e. exploring a gap of knowledge.

In addition to projects, you could also try to secure a grant, which corresponds to a certain amount of money that you are given for a specific purpose. It can be for helping you in the different steps of your academic career2, to allow you a visit of several months/years in another institution, often abroad…

Projects and grants are capital for researchers, especially early and mid-career. Not having a project or a grant funded can mean not having a job anymore! And this is a very important part of the insecurity that many researchers face.

Projects and grants have one thing in common: someone needs to pay for them, and this is the role of funding agencies. Funding agencies are private or public organizations whose role is to give money to certain persons and/or institutions3. Since their money is not unlimited, they select carefully those to whom they give money depending on their overall aim, policies and strategic interests. They usually do so through the dreading calls for proposals.

Calls and Proposals

Calls for proposals are announcements sent by funding agencies about something they want to have people work on. It is usually a general topic, strategic directions they want to pursue… Funding agencies usually have recurring yearly calls. The researchers then need to answer the call by submitting proposals, i.e. what they think they can do that would fit this general topic or strategic direction. It is basically saying “I can do this work and that would benefit you greatly! Please give me the money.”

In a proposal, you explain what is the problem you intend to deal with, how you intend to deal with it 4 and why this problem is important for the society/funding agency/science. In addition, you often need to show that you have previous experience in similar problems and/or preliminary results so that the funding agency is reassured about your ability to tackle this problem.

Writing proposals is a difficult skill to learn. You need to hit the right spot between being over-confident and promising the moon and being under-confident and not ambitious enough. In addition, the persons who are going to decide if you get the money might not be experts in your field. Therefore you need to make sure your proposal is understandable for non-experts while being precise enough to show the scientific interest. And finally, you need to tailor your proposal towards the call you are answering so that your project fits in the goals of the call. It can take from 2 months to a year5 between the moment you actually decide to work on an idea and a written proposal, all depending on the size of the project and how many times you needed to resubmit it. It is a very consequent work and takes a very large percentage of a researcher’s work.

After you send your proposal, the agency will review it to decide whether they accept to fund it or not. The criteria under which your proposal is evaluated depends on the agency. Some calls are competitive6 or not7.

Reviews and University Blues

One of the reasons why the proposals’ period is dreaded by researchers and can lead to a “University Blues”8 is that the criteria are not always known. You simply do not know why your proposal has been accepted or rejected. You might get reviews about your proposals9, but too many agencies give as instruction for reviewers to not provide precise indications on how to improve their proposals. The only way to maybe figure out what you have to do is to try again next year and/or to team up with a more experienced researcher. Even though, from discussion with senior researchers in my team, they still do not know how some agencies are deciding whether the proposal gets accepted or not. After years of trying, years of having proposals accepted and rejected.

Therefore you end up at the end of the review period with a notification of acceptance or a notification of rejection, without really knowing why nor how to improve next time. And remember that proposals getting accepted are often the only way for young researchers to keep their job! You are betting your job on a game for which you don’t know all the rules.

With that, I have three proposals to finish… See you later!

See you in 9 months for the results!

Afterword

Just a quick afterword to mention that in addition to that, the fact that so many agencies are asking for previous results and previous experience in the field you intend to research discourage researchers to go for high-risk/high-reward projects10. All of this reduces a lot the creativity in science, especially in public research. Big companies such as Google or Facebook can afford high risk/high reward projects, and they encourage them. But do we really want to leave all the high-rewards to companies? I know I don’t.


  1. For instance the awesome AI4EU project which started recently
  2. That is the role of starting grants or consolidation grants.
  3. Such as universities
  4. This is called the research plan and can be very tricky to write since one of the main aspects of a problem is that we don’t know yet how to solve it.
  5. even more sometimes
  6. The agency decided they will fund only 10 projects and therefore pick the 10 best ones.
  7. The agency has some criteria to decide whether a project is good enough and all the proposals that meet these criteria will be funded, regardless of how many there are.
  8. In addition to the work overload
  9. If you are lucky
  10. These are the type of projects that could really fail and not lead to anything, but if you succeed, Jackpot! That could open a whole new world.
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