The European Research Council grants are substantial but highly competitive. Here we share our advice on shaping successful applications that combine the right framing with the right structure.

11, 13, 13 and 2. These are the percentages of the successful applications for four[1] major European Research Council (ERC) grant categories since 2007. For comparison, the success rate of applications to the Swedish Research Council was 18% in 2017. Clearly, acquiring an ERC grant implies rising above some very stiff competition, rendering a well written application non-negotiable. We at Elevate can help you develop impactful ERC applications that stand a higher chance of success.

What makes for a successful grant application? Innovative and well thought out ideas, the track record of a researcher and the significance of the proposed work are all undoubtedly important. But just as important is a good narrative: this might sound like a cliché, but that does not mean it is not true. Indeed, the cognitive sciences have emphasized the importance of stories in communication because they enhance audience engagement, comprehension and recollection.

Reviewers are asked to assess scores of applications in most grant-selection processes, and time is at a premium. Engaging stories can allow you to tell reviewers and funders most effectively what you want to do, how you will do it and, most importantly, why that matters. Writing engaging stories requires: 1) the right framing; 2) the right structure for organizing the text and display items; and 3) good flow at the sentence and paragraph levels. Of course, this needs to adhere to the funder’s guidelines.

The framing sets the stage for the story and comes up front in an application. This is your opportunity to heighten the interest of the reviewer(s) by delineating the gap in knowledge that has motivated your proposed work, followed by a punchy statement of the purpose and, finally, the anticipated impact of the work. The rest of the application is structured in a way that allows each section to contribute to the same, overarching story: in other words, information is presented coherently and consistently, flowing from the general to the specific within each section. Collectively, the various sections unfold the story of how you go about addressing the gap outlined up front. These sections provide answers to such questions as “What will you do?” and “How will you do it”, besides elaborating on “Why is it important?”.

Grant application flow chartThe recipe for a successful ERC application is the same as that for any other grant application. The key is to adapt the narrative to the prescribed two-part structure: the shorter B1 (extended synopsis) and the in-depth B2 (full proposal). The B1 must provide as complete a story as possible and not a superficial or skewed summary. Given the space constraints, this is about choosing the right level of detail that is needed to gauge the novelty, significance and feasibility of the proposed work. Moreover, the B1 needs to be pitched at generalists. No internal sections are prescribed by ERC, but our recommendation is to have a structure that mirrors that of B2. For the B2 part, the challenge is to ensure that the narrative does not get muddled by, or meander because of, technical details.

Elevate provides two services to help shape your ERC grant application; the services can be availed of separately or in combination. In an editorial assessment, we provide incisive feedback and guidance on the content and presentation of applications, and comment on the novelty and significance of proposed work. We ask, for example, whether the application provides adequate context and has a well defined, strong central message. Our assessment is summarized in a report that accompanies a commented version of the application. Substantive editing involves in-depth editing to sharpen the application’s narrative and improve its structure and flow. We can suggest changes to the application’s structure, rewrite or re-organize text to improve flow and suggest the addition of figures or tables. The deliverable in this case is a version of the application with tracked changes and comments.

The deadlines for the ERC starting and advanced grants are in the autumn (mid-October and end-August respectively). The deadline for the synergy grant is in November. If you are thinking of applying for any of these grants, do get in touch with us: we have considerable experience of helping shape successful grant applications, including those for the ERC’s Advanced Grant scheme. Ideally, please contact us two-to-three months in advance of the deadlines to ensure that we have space in our schedule and so that you have sufficient time to revise according to our feedback and edits. We look forward to working with you!

[1] The ERC funds researchers at all career stages via starting, consolidator and advanced grants. In addition, it funds ambitious projects that require the expertise of multiple investigators (synergy grants).