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Beating the odds

Image: Lionel Roubeyrie [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

For many Africans there are extra hurdles to attaining ERC glory

Winning a European Research Council grant is a career-defining moment for any researcher.

Accordingly, competition for grants is intense—and made even more so by the fact that the ERC’s funding schemes are open to all nationalities, as long as winners take up their grant at an institution within the EU or a country associated to Horizon Europe.

However, this does not mean that grantees must cut ties with institutions outside of the EU, as Angela Liberatore, the head of the ERC Executive Agency’s scientific department, explained at a webinar for African applicants earlier this year. 

Grantees can keep a dual affiliation with a host institution in Europe and an African institution, splitting their time between the two, she related.

Going the extra mile

While the ERC has funded more than 10,000 grantees since its launch in 2007, only 149 applications have come from researchers of African nationality, and only 14 have applied while based in Africa, Liberatore said. Currently, there are just 16 ERC grantees of African nationality. 

One of those is Jennifer Robinson, a geography professor at University College London in the UK, who won an Advanced Grant in 2019. Robinson, who spoke at the webinar, explained how African researchers need to go the extra mile in an already competitive field for ERC grants.

“Writing from an African context, you will have to try and make yourself eligible in a way perhaps that other people don’t,” she said. 

“You might have to do a little bit more explaining about your career trajectory.” 

This is because African researchers might not have followed a career route that conforms to European expectations.

Robinson added that African researchers should “insist that what you are saying is intellectually robust and important, even though it’s not the standard European perspective”.

Laying the foundations

Robinson’s number-one piece of advice was that budding applicants should start the process early.

“It’s a huge effort to prepare; it takes a lot of time,” she said, suggesting that applicants should get as much feedback as possible when developing a proposal.

Robinson’s recommendation was to use the advice of friends and colleagues to hone ideas early on. “I started to include some of the ideas in presentations I was doing to get feedback and see what works,” she recalled.

This all fed into what she called “the piece of advice that’s most important if you’re applying from an African context: that you have to really put some good support in place”.

This might include carefully choosing a European host institution that has experience of managing ERC grants and making the most of pre-existing networks. 

“Maybe you’ve helped a famous European scholar navigate their way around your city or helped them with some data. Call in the favour—they owe you,” Robinson said. 

Risk management

When it comes to the project, the ERC is laser-focused on excellence and expects big ideas. But the bigger the idea, the bigger the risk, and Robinson noted that applicants will need to show evaluators how they plan to mitigate risks.

“In terms of working in Africa, you might have to work a little harder at showing how you will be able to realise this research in an African context,” she said. “For me, that came up in things like security and data availability.”

Making proposals easy to read and easy to navigate is a must, as panel members will have many applications to read through. Robinson advised planning where applicants will be for the final stages of proposal-writing, and who will be able to help make sure everything is as polished as possible. “I was on a family beach holiday, so I was forced to go lie on the beach all day and then sit up all night until five o’clock [in the morning] trying to work on my proposal,” she recalled.

Pick your peers

“You also want to be building on your strengths so you have to show that you deserve this project,” Robinson stressed. She advised that applicants should carefully choose which panel they will apply to among the 25 subject panels that the ERC has, covering all fields of science.

“Look at the panel you’ve selected—is this going to be the right one for you? Are people going to be sympathetic to your work?”

She also highlighted the applicant’s ability to be strategic when it comes to who will be reviewing their proposal. 

“You can exclude people who are gatekeepers and don’t like your work,” she said, referencing the fact that the ERC allows applicants to request up to three people to be excluded as peer reviewers.

Again, this is a power that is potentially valuable to African researchers in particular. “In many fields, there is a deep exclusion of African concerns from the European academy, so really work on your reference lists and your insights to make your case emphatically,” Robinson urged. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com