“If you want a grant, impress your peers, understand the evaluation process, and be ready to drink coffee all around Europe”

Seán McCarthy is an expert on how to write competitive proposals for European grants
Seán McCarthy is an expert on how to write competitive proposals for European grants
  • <p>Seán McCarthy is an expert on how to write competitive proposals for European grants</p>
  • <p>A very attentive public from IRB Barcelona, IBEC and IBMB listened to Seán McCarthy</p>
  • <p>Seán McCarthy discusses with Core Facility Manager Camille Stephan Otto Attolini on the best strategy to obtain a European grant</p>

There comes a time in every scientist’s life when he or she has to face writing grant proposals. It’s almost impossible to hear anyone talking enthusiastically about the experience. Yet in vivo found one of these raras aves.

His name is Seán McCarthy, he has been a researcher, manager, group leader, and company director in the field of photovoltaic science in Ireland. But one day he experienced a turning point. “I was on a high when I wrote the proposals!”, he explains. And that’s when he realised he preferred writing proposals to being an active scientist.

McCarthy gave a highly entertaining lecture at IRB Barcelona on 23 February, co-organised by IBEC and IBMB, on “How to Write a Competitive Proposal for Horizon 2020”. Most Group Leaders and Research Associates from the three institutes were among the attentive public.

It is rather uncommon to find scientists enthusiastic about writing proposals.

I know! That’s my lectures aim, to bring back fun and satisfaction into proposal writing. I loved science. But I found the whole EU process in Brussels more fascinating. I was on a high when I wrote the proposals! I found that if someone in the team had a good idea, I got a kick out of bringing the whole thing together and getting it funded.

Why are you giving this kind of lecture?

What I do now is offer the kind of training I wish I had got at the beginning. I love training and seeing people’s enthusiasm to learn. I am currently studying European scientific debates, in an attempt to predict the goals of the next framework programme six or seven years ahead. I try to see the big picture, so when the next programme is announced in 2021, I’m ready for the next training round.

What is that you find so interesting about the process?

Researchers regard proposal writing as the boring part of science. But if you have brilliant ideas, trying to sell that idea and get it going, that’s really the exciting part of science! Having an idea and looking for funding is exciting. What doesn’t work is knowing that the funding is there and trying to invent an idea in order to get it. That’s very hard work.

Give us three messages to scientists about to write a proposal.

Number one. Understanding the evaluation process in minute detail is the secret. That’s why being an evaluator is the best investment you can make in your career because you learn how the entire mechanism works. Number two. Because projects (except ERC – that’s a different process) involve consortia, if you are not prepared to drink coffee around Europe, then forget it. When I asked a professor that I met in Maastricht what the secret was to being so successful in winning projects, he answered: “I have a simple strategy. It’s all about impressing my peers. Everything I do, whether writing a proposal or making a presentation, I try to impress people. Even if the proposal is not funded, they will remember that my contribution was excellent.” You have to know who your peers are in Europe, get to know them, and impress them by doing something very professional. These are career-building steps. Finally, if you are operating at  European level, strong presentation skills are crucial to communicate your ideas concisely and clearly. You have to go from telling to selling.

What do you mean?

Let me give you an example. Once I met a woman in Norway who was working on the ‘internet of things’ to prevent dementia. Her idea was to put sensors on objects so that people could be reminded where glasses or a wallet were for example. While she was telling me all this, I was provokingly asking her key questions to gauge how convinced she was about her idea, if she really believed in it. And she got really furious and started throwing numbers and statistics at me. Bingo! That was exactly what I was looking for—passion. At that point she was selling and not just telling. She finally got funded. I often say that the difference between telling and selling are numbers.

During your seminar, you mentioned the “b-word”. You said: a lot of proposals are boring.

That’s right. Stop writing boring proposals! You are killing the evaluators. This goes back to communication. I always start my presentation with a quote by Pericles, V century BC. “A man who has the knowledge but lacks the power to express it clearly is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all.” If you have a brilliant idea, you have to find a brilliant way to explain it. Scientists have to work on this soft skill.

Any other soft skill that scientists should work on?

Networking. Skype and email are horrible for building networks because you don’t get the personal touch. Politicians call it ‘pressing the flesh’. People should invest time and money in travelling, either bringing people to you or going to see them. Also, speaking at conferences is a part of proposal writing. When you speak in these events, you are telling people in the audience: if you need a partner, here I am. People with ideas attract people with ideas.

Tell us more about another trick you mentioned: reverse approach.

A proposal is submitted to various kinds of evaluator: bureaucratic evaluators, scientific evaluators and science policy evaluators. So the first thing you have to work on is the idea, not the bureaucratic form you have to fill in. You have to ask yourself: does my idea fit one of the scientific pillars of the programme? If it does, the second question is: how do we convince the scientific evaluators? Only at the end do you work on the bureaucratic aspects and fill in the forms with the requirements. Most people do the opposite, and it doesn’t work.

What are the 5 key questions a scientist should ask him/herself when applying for a European grant?

The first one is: why bother – what’s the problem you are trying to solve? Second: why should Europe fund this – why should it not be funded at national level or by industry for example? Third: Are you telling me nobody is doing this already? Meaning: has this been done before? Fourth: Why now? What would happen if we didn’t fund you? Is it interesting, urgent or critical? And finally: are you really the best person for the job? These are tough questions to answer!

For an ERC grant there are different questions.

Yes. When you come to ERC, you have to think about what new knowledge you are producing. Are the key journals going to publish the results? Is it beyond state-of-the-art? But the real hidden question here is: convince me you know the state-of-the-art before we move on. Then comes the killer question for all scientists: why the hell wasn’t this done before? I’ve seen scientists spending weeks trying to figure this out or waking up at three in the morning to answer this. And finally: are you really the best scientist for the job? The objective of my courses is to plant these questions to people, so they will be more prepared to answer them.