Georgia Destouni. Photo: Cecilia Bruzelius
Georgia Destouni. Photo: Cecilia Bruzelius

Georgia Destouni is Professor of Hydrology at Stockholm University and Secretary General for the Swedish Research Council FORMAS.

She has been a member of the research councils of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Swedish Rescue Services Agency. She has also been on the evaluation panels of the Swedish Research Council, the European Science Foundation (ESF) and several other foreign funding agencies.

She points out the fundamental requirements of all calls: the quality of the research questions, the methodology, the applicant’s scientific qualifications, the clarity and feasibility of the proposal. In targeted calls the proposal must also be relevant to the orientation of the grant.

ERC projects, in particular, are "high risk/high gain". They are scientifically impeccable, hypothesis-driven projects that can lead to scientific breakthroughs. The proposal should present clear and explicitly formulated hypotheses and the expected high scientific gains. They should also include a careful analysis of the research risks that accompany the project.

What are the most common “mistakes” in proposals?

“A lack of clarity, the absence of clear hypotheses and research questions that logically motivate the research and drive the project’s execution in order for the hypotheses to be tested and the questions to be answered. Another problem is using too much jargon in more general grants where the reviewers are more likely to be generalists rather than specialists in your particular field. A third mistake is not paying enough attention to the grant’s focus and purpose and the funding agency’s mission”, says Georgia.

Furthermore, she highlights that targeted calls often require a well-considered analysis of their relevance and a plan for communicating the research to potential stakeholders. Proposals do not always focus enough on this and end up being less well-formulated, logical and clear.

What are your best tips when applying for external research funding?

“Do a study of the research landscape and upcoming calls in your area of research. Set up an application plan for the current year. Read the calls carefully, find out what the grant is about, what kind of projects are financed, and what needs the projects are intended to meet. Don’t apply for every grant willy-nilly and, especially, if you are a junior researcher, don’t wait until the last minute to write your proposal”, says Georgia.

Question at the cutting edge of research

Gunnel Forsberg. Photo: Adam af Ekenstam
Gunnel Forsberg. Photo: Adam af Ekenstam

Gunnel Forsberg is Professor of Human Geography and has a long experience reviewing research proposals at Formas, the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova, as well as other Swedish and foreign funding agencies, primarily in human geography, economic geography and gender studies. She says that the reviewers are primarily looking for a good and interesting research question formulated by a researcher or research group with good knowledge in the field. The research question should be on the cutting edge.

“I react strongly when I read a proposal full of trendy terms and concepts without scientific substance. This might be said of “gender perspective”, which is sometimes used very sloppily compared to other theoretical fields.”

 What are your best tips for those seeking external funding?

“Read the instructions, begin early and build on the competences you already have.”

The review process has given her insights that she’s used in her own work, such as coping with adversities.

“Even really good projects can get rejected because of a tough competition.“