Ambitious? Apply for the ERC!

Rune Slothuus, professor of political science, has received a DKK 15 million Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council. In this article, he shares his experiences in securing the large grant. He emphasises his generous colleagues at the department and the school, who helped him throughout the application process.

Professor of Political Science Rune Slothuus Photo: Ingrid Fossum

“To develop an ERC application is a massive undertaking. It takes time to develop a good idea and write a project description. It can seem rather daunting. If you are rejected, you will be placed in quarantine and will not be allowed to apply for funding for the same project for one year. This means that it is not simply a case of submitting a generic application. You really have to want it,” says Rune Slothuus.

“That being said, you should definitely go for it. The success rate is ok - more or less on par with the Independent Research Fund Denmark* (DFF) And just like DFF, the ERC supports non-earmarked research, which makes it a very good opportunity to obtain financial support for bold research ideas.

To meet the ERC’s assessment criteria, the research must be pioneering, push boundaries and venture into new territory. It must be of a groundbreaking nature and be able to move a research field. So you really do need an exceptional idea. You also have to prove that you are an excellent research group leader. Rune Slothuus is the second researcher at Aarhus BSS to receive an ERC Consolidator Grant.

“To receive an ERC grant is especially important to me because I attach much importance to the ERC. I have also chaired a working group at the department, which has strongly encouraged us to go for grants from the European Research Council. I am extremely happy that I manage to live up to own expectations,” says Slothuus. 

The grant will go towards his project ”The Informational Role of Political Parties in Citizens’ Opinion Formation”, which deals with the role of political parties in informing citizens and allowing them to make decisions on a more informed basis.

A time-consuming but intellectually rewarding process

“I have worked very hard and for a long time to get this grant. I thought the idea over seriously for a year before the application deadline in February 2019,” explains Slothuus.

Six months before the deadline, the professor worked on getting all the central concepts together and sounded the idea out with colleagues in Aarhus and internationally. Two months before the deadline, he cleared his calendar and got a lot of work done over the Christmas holidays.

“You have to give it top priority because most people find it challenging to just write a bit here and there. You need to ensure that you have cohesive time for thinking innovatively and writing at a high academic level that can convince others i.e. the assessment panel and the external reviewers. To make time, you have to let go of other things,” says Slothuus.

While working on the application, Rune Slothuus relied heavily on his colleagues to read and give feedback on the project description.

“One of the best things about writing the application was that I had fantastic support and help from my colleagues. It was an intellectually rewarding process, which really allowed me to think up new ideas. The department as well as the school have an excellent research environment which provided a lot of help,” says Slothuus. He also highlights the internal peer review at the school where he received feedback from Christoffer Green-Pedersen from his own department, Tine Sommer from the Department of Law, and Klaus Grunert from the Department of Management.

“It was important to get their feedback on the application because ERC applications are assessed by researchers from different disciplines,” explains Slothuus.

In October as part of the final assessment, Rune Slothuus was interviewed by the assessment panel in the ERC building in central Brussels.

“Here I could also draw on my colleagues. They helped me ensure that my presentation was focused and also came up with suggestions for what kind of critical questions the panel might ask,” explains Slothuus.

Finally, at the beginning of December, Slothuus received the delightful news that he had received the grant, which totalled almost DKK 15 million. The money will go towards an extensive experimental data collection across five countries and the appointment of three postdocs, who are familiar with those countries.

Niels Mejlgaard, Associate Dean responsible for EU funding, supports Rune Slothuus’ recommendation to apply for ERC grants:

“The ERC grants are aimed at the curiosity-driven and non-earmarked research, and there is fierce competition for the funds. To be in the running for the grant, you need an original and compelling research idea, a strong CV and a focused application that has gone through an extensive quality assurance process. I’m very happy that Rune Slothuus has secured the school’s second ERC Consolidator grant, and hopefully, this will motivate other researchers to consider the possibility. Overall, the researchers at Aarhus BSS have a good track record when it comes to applications for EU funding. It is important that we share and learn from the positive and negative experiences regarding ERC funding applications and other H2020 programmes, so that we can maintain the success rate.”

Six tips for those who are considering applying for an ERC grant:

1. Consider the ERC
The success rate is ok and on par with the Independent Research Fund Denmark. It is a great opportunity to obtain funds for bold research ideas. The next deadline is 4 February 2020.

2. Familiarise yourself with the ERC’s assessment criteria
Explain clearly how you meet the ERC’s assessment criteria of the applicant (PI) as well as the project.

3. Think long-term
The ERC’s assessment criteria are highly ambitious, so you need to think about the application well in advance. Immediately after your PhD, you should be thinking about your CV and how you can build up a competitive research profile. Focus on quality and publications in the top journals and publishers.  Think about possible groundbreaking ideas.

4. Use your colleagues
Use your colleagues in the idea development phase and let them read your project description to ensure that it makes sense to researchers from other disciplines.

5. Prioritise your ERC application
An ERC application takes time, and you cannot do everything at once.

6. Look forward to the application process
It is intellectually very stimulating and on the whole a very good experience. It is fantastic to experience the generosity and helpfulness of your colleagues.

Facts about the European Research Council’s Consolidator Grant

Consolidator Grants are awarded to excellent researchers seven to 12 years after they have completed their PhD. To receive the award, you must demonstrate a promising scientific list of publications and a project proposal for new potentially groundbreaking research. The purpose of the grant is to allow individual researchers to consolidate themselves and their research teams.

Want to know more?

Read more about the internal peer review process at Aarhus BSS

Read the interview with Associate Dean Niels Mejlgaard: 

Read more about ERC