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What you need to know about the Austrian Science Fund’s revamped postdoc programme

Sitting at the crossroads of Europe, Austria’s research sector is geographically connected to the power players of the EU to the west and newer member states to the east. In 2021, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) revamped its funding programme that enables foreign researchers to spend time at the country’s universities.

The Esprit programme, which opened for applications on 27 April and runs without a deadline, is focused on funding postdoctoral researchers from any country to carry out independent research projects in any discipline in Austria. Applicants must have less than five years of research experience and the Esprit programme makes no distinction between researchers already in Austria and those outside.

Grants cover the principal investigator’s salary, as well as project-specific costs of €15,000-€25,000 per year, along with child allowance and publication costs. Projects should last three years. 

Eva Wysocki, scientific project officer for the Esprit programme at FWF, gives us the lowdown.

What was the reason for launching Esprit?

The Esprit programme is a successor to the Lise Meitner programme, which had an emphasis on postdocs, but we had applicants from all stages of their scientific career. We also had a programme for female postdocs to increase the number of female researchers. We have tried to harmonise our portfolio to create a programme for all postdocs.

Other than eligibility, what are the differences with those previous programmes?

We put a lot more emphasis in the programme goals on the fact that projects should enable the researchers to create their own independent research portfolio, which is especially important for younger postdocs. We also do not have formal co-applicants, as we had in previous programmes. Instead, applicants need to have a mentor, who doesn’t have to be at the same Austrian research institution as the applicant.

Your aim is to award 50 per cent of grants to women

Yes. For most of our funding programmes, a proportion of projects will be worthy of funding without question, but then we have a pool of fundable projects, not all of which can be funded. So this is the pool in which, if there are equally good projects, female principal investigators will be given priority.

How many applications are you expecting?

So far, our forecasts are that we will receive around 300 applications a year. But this is really a very rough estimate. Based on the experience we have with previous programmes, our funding rate will be in the range of 25 to 27 per cent. We have a budget of €20 million per year for this programme.

What is needed from the host institution?

With this programme, as with all our new funding programmes, the researchers submit the application and then it has to be approved and finally released by the research institution. The final grant contract is signed between the research institution and the FWF, similar to European grants such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships. And the researcher has an employment contract with the research institution during the time of the project, which is financed by the FWF.

What would make an application stand out?

We have an international peer review process, so the main issue is to convince international peers that the project is novel, interesting research that is really worth doing. 

We fund basic research, so it’s important to underline how projects will bring forward the state of the art—not a particular application, but really how it will advance the field. And it must take into account the aims of the programme: how will this help you, as a postdoc, to establish your own research profile, and how can this project advance your career?

Do you see any common mistakes in applications?

What we see frequently, which can be avoided, is being too vague with regard to the aims of the project. 

Also, the description of what’s being done has to be written in a way that the reviewer can evaluate whether it’s feasible. 

Some applicants do not describe what they’re going to do sufficiently, while others describe standard protocols across many pages, which is also not so useful. I think one of the basic things would be to really focus on the important issues—on the question, on the methods, on why and how. It’s also important to think about backup plans, especially if there is not so much preliminary data yet.

Are there any restrictions on the topics of research projects funded by Esprit?

It’s all disciplines and all areas, as long as there is a research question behind it. We’ll also fund clinical research projects.

Is there an expectation that researchers stay in Austria after their project?

This isn’t really an issue because the programme is not, in a strict sense, a mobility programme. The real focus is on the skill development of the applicants. Of course, it would be great if later on a grantee won a position here at an Austrian research institution. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe