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The research jackpot

The research jackpot

Photographer:Fotograaf: Think Stock

Hunting for European subsidies

ERC grants: the European research grants are at the top of every researcher’s wish list. But it’s a cut-throat competition. “Show a backup plan in the case of a setback,” is a tip from Maastricht professor Marc Vooijs, who has already struck gold in Brussels on three occasions.  

Thursday morning, 9:00hrs. One by one, the eight senior researchers who have enrolled for the ERC workshop, enter the door of the small room on the fifth floor of UNS 40. They have barely introduced themselves when tips fly back and forth. The advice is useful, certainly, but not always very encouraging. It starts with the deadline. Everything has to be in Brussels by 15 February, including the research proposal (max. 15 pages), an elaborate summary, one's CV and a list of publications.

The research shouldn't just be looking at something new, it must be ground-breaking; 73 per cent of all awarded grants lead to breakthroughs. Not necessarily the final answer, but the beginning of something new, the opening of a research field.

Age doesn't matter, provided it hasn't been longer than twelve years since one completed one’s PhD. But age seems to matter after all: the older you are, the tighter the squeeze. After all, the older the wiser. No more than 15 per cent is successful in the end.

Natural Science

The ERC grant, which was introduced ten years ago, is now viewed as the main prize in research. Compared to the NWO grants (Veni, Vidi, Vici), it carries more weight internationally and provides more money. Many researchers send their applications to both Brussels and The Hague. The chances of receiving two grants are tiny, but not nil. It happened to Vera Schrauwen-Hinderling, researcher at Radiology and Human Biology (see page 1).

The UM does well, says ERC advisor Ermo Daniëls. “We more or less meet the targets that we have set ourselves: two ERC grants each year, including an advanced grant. But we don't always manage the latter. In the future, benefits are to be had particularly in Natural Sciences, also because the competition is a little less in that field. I also expect great things from the new research institutes M4I, MERLN and IDS. They have invested heavily and are bursting at the seams with talent.”

Most ERCs have been won by Cognitive Neurosciences, GROW, and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “This faculty had a very strong cohort of applicants in 2015. This time, six starting grants were applied for, which is a lot for a relatively small faculty. The allocation of grants encourages colleagues to also have a go.”


A round of telephone calls among the Maastricht top ERC earners starts with Alard Roebroeck (39), senior lecturer at Cognitive Neurosciences. Just like Schrauwen-Hinderling, he obtained both a Vidi and an ERC in 2014, but with two different proposals. Roebroeck sent an application to Brussels to study the way in which the brain, the visual cortex, registers movement. And to The Hague he sent the idea of studying the architecture of the cortex at that moment when something goes wrong, when Alzheimer's manifests itself.

When the invitation for an interview in Brussels arrived, he was in doubt as to whether he should send off the other proposal to The Hague, but he did so anyway. “The Vidi committee did make a point about that. I had to show in detail that they were two different studies, that they didn't overlap.”

Roebroeck was pleasantly surprised when he was also awarded the Vidi grant. “Of course, I was happy, but it would mean working really hard in order to actually pull it all off. Rigid planning was crucial, I couldn't make any mistakes. Sometimes, it takes a while to recruit a PhD student, but I couldn't allow myself that luxury. I now have ten postdocs, PhD students and master’s students working for me.”

Roebroeck is halfway and everything is going according to plan. “Albeit by the skin of my teeth, because even in the evenings and the weekends, all kinds of stuff needs to be done, but NWO was satisfied with the progress a couple of weeks ago.”

Fresh view

Marc Vooijs (52), professor occupying the endowed chair of Radiotherapy, has struck gold in Brussels three times. He belonged to the first batch to be honoured and received a starting grant in 2007. At the time, he still worked in Utrecht. When he worked for the UM, the molecular biologist received a proof of concept in 2013 and a year later a consolidator grant of no less than 2.5 million euro.

Vooijs is studying the behaviour of cancer cells with a view to improving radiotherapy. That subject has been a leitmotiv in his scientific career and this helps convince subsidisers, he says. “You need to show how your new ideas come from your earlier work. But also: what the pitfalls and risks are of your new ideas. Brussels has the motto: high gain, high risk. The projects are innovative, but you must have a clear backup plan to present to them. When a project goes differently than was planned, then this is the alternative scenario.”

It’s a cut-throat competition, says Roebroeck. “Do a good job or don't do it at all! You have to start three months beforehand, otherwise you can forget it. You need time to be able to set the application aside for a week or two, so that you can look at it again with a fresh view. That is when you will suddenly see that some passages are not convincing enough. Every sentence has to hit home.”

Schrauwen-Hinderling emphasises the importance of top publications. “During the research project, I had additional measurements carried out in the US. This contributed towards the article being published in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Investigation. Moreover, I was planning on continuing along that line in the study for which I had applied.”



Starting grant: 1.5 million, for researchers who want to start up a group.

Consolidator grant: 2.5 million, for researchers who have already worked with their own group.

Advanced grant: up to 3.5 million, for very experienced researchers.

(Proof of concept: 150 thousand euro, meant for the exploration of the innovativeness or commercial potential of the research results. Chances of succeeding are high.)

On 16 June 2016, the European Research Council awarded the 500th ERC grant. This was at the UM, as the honour fell upon Valentina Mazzucato, professor of Globalisation and Development at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences



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