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Successful ERC funding: What I wished I’d known in advance

In December, Professor Jacob Fog Bentzon was awarded one of the coveted grants of DKK 15 million from the European Research Council. Here he shares some of the things he wished he knew before he started applying for EU funding four years and three applications ago.

In my first application I lost my way – and lost the reader – in thirteen detailed sub-goals, which was big mistake, Jacob Fog Bentzon says.

"While the consultant explained how a good ERC application should look, I sat and ticked off my own mistakes. Did that wrong, and that, and that...”

As a new ERC grant recipient, Professor Jacob Fog Bentzon does not look at all like a man with a litany of mistakes on his conscience. He is currently bringing together his own team of young researchers who will receive funding over the next five years from the European Research Council as they work to uncover the significance of smooth muscle cells for atherosclerosis. Yet here he is three months after receiving the good news, sitting in the basement at the Department of Clinical Medicine and talking about his rejections, because he hopes that some of his own blunders can become a springboard rather than a tripwire for his colleagues with similar ERC dreams.

"I've applied for ERC funds three times since 2016, twice without success, and I've learned a lot in the process. There are also things I wish I’d known beforehand," says Jacob Fog Bentzon on his reasons for sharing his experiences.

His dream of securing the big EU grant started when he moved to Spain in 2015 to work for the Spanish cardiovascular research centre CNIC in Madrid – today Jacob Fog Bentzon is employed in a professorship divided between CNIC, Steno Diabetes Center Aarhus and the Department of Cardiology at the Department of Clinical Medicine.

"When I arrived in Spain, I was surrounded by ERC grant recipients, and I decided to apply for my own Consolidator Grant. Which I did in 2016, but unfortunately without getting anywhere and with the compulsory one year wait before I could re-apply," he explains. The next time he tried was in 2018, leading to yet another rejection, this time after getting as far as an interview.

Teaching was the turning point

"I was really close but looking back I think the rejection came because I hadn't dosed the various elements of my project in the right way. Of course, our ideas have also evolved along the way, but the most important thing has been learning how to write an application that matches the ERC panel’s taste. For me, the turning point was a seminar with an ERC consultant in Madrid where we went through the requirements in a very specific and action-oriented way. This meeting strengthened my belief that I could do this, but also that I had to approach it in a completely different way than I’d done before," says Jacob Fog Bentzon today.

The do's and dont’s that he learned most from can be summarised in five bullet points, followed by his own comments:

  • Present an ambitious idea
  • Not too exploratory, but also not only hypothesis-testing
  • Make a compelling case from the beginning – page 1 can make or break the whole thing
  • Involve new technology and show that you are capable of using it
  • Incorporate preliminary data

"In my first application, I mistakenly thought that two million Euros for five years of research was bound to demand an awful lot of detailed description. This meant that I lost my way – and lost the reader – in thirteen detailed sub-goals, which was big mistake. Present an ambitious idea is Jacob Fog Bentzon’s most fundamental experience.

No upper limit for where things can end

Another key decision is how exploratory or hypothesis-testing the research must be and in his own assessment, he fell into two opposing traps here.

“The first rejected application was too exploratory, while the second was too narrowly hypothesis-testing, too much yes/no in its design. As we know, research is often a case of asking a series of questions that can then be corroborated or disproved. However, purely hypothesis-driven projects have a problem in that it’s very easy to predict what they’ll end with. And with an ERC application there shouldn’t be any upper limit on how exciting it can be,” he says.

“I learnt that from my colleague Søren Riis Paludan and AU’s Research Support Office in connection with a practice interview, and integrated it in my third attempt.”

His project investigates how newly discovered functions of smooth muscle cells in late atherosclerosis can be targeted and potentially improve treatment of the disease. Jacob Fog Bentzon eventually managed to describe this in a way that was hypothesis-testing without shutting the whole thing down, while he also worked on the technical aspects of his presentation.

A third crucial point from the ERC consultant was that an application can (almost) be doomed in the first paragraph. The first page can make or break the whole thing.

“It’s easy to describe a project which begins in your own sphere, for example on a cellular level in my case, but this won’t do when the evaluators need to understand that the project is important for the whole world. On the other hand, there’s no need to start with 'atherosclerosis is a major societal problem' as the expert panel knows this already," says Jacob Fog Bentzon.

Begin the journey – also with data

"In my case, it was a question of describing the necessity of developing new types of treatment to help patients with advanced atherosclerosis – one of the most frequent causes of death – and to highlight the contrast with existing experimental research, which to a large extent focuses on the early atherosclerosis that is found in young people," he explains.

Jacob Fog Bentzon has no doubt that the decisive factor in his case was that he had already begun his journey towards where he wanted to end through the use of new technology. And it was third time lucky as he incorporated a technique for single cell expression profiling which at that time was not available at either Aarhus University or CNIC. Instead, Jacob Fog Bentzon created his own preliminary data by re-analysing a public single cell expression dataset from atherosclerosis in mice which had been published a few months before. Both in order to support the ideas in the project and, at the same time, simply to show that his team could master this new ground-breaking technique.

"Between the submission and the subsequent interview, a second publicly available dataset became available – this time from human atherosclerosis – which we quickly re-analysed so I could take some new and relevant material to the interview with the ERC panel. To do this I drew on a core facility in bioinformatics in Madrid which helps to analyse public data as one of its services," says Jacob Fog Bentzon, who by and large recommends the public datasets when sending major applications.

"Published raw data is a colossal resource, and I would think that the vast majority of people can find information that will help to hone their hypotheses and improve the planning of experiments – and in this way also convince the foundations that their project is worth investing in," he says.


Jacob Fog Bentzon
Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine
Email: jfbentzon@clin.au.dk
Mobil: (+45) 9352 1562

Interested in applying for an EU grant?

At Health, both the department head and the Research Support Office should be contacted in plenty of time before you as a researcher begin on applications under the FP7 and Horizon 2020 programmes.

Experience shows that EU applications can take a long time, as the faculty’s special ERC initiative illustrates. As can be seen in the article DKK 100,000 in midwife help for an ERC grant, the faculty has previously supported researchers on condition that they submitted an ERC application within two years.

The department’s rules, offers of help and self-help tools are described on the Improving your grant applications website (illustrated here by the Department of Clinical Medicine). The help may vary from department to department, so researchers should check their own department's internal website, which can be found in the navigation menu under ‘Researcher Support'.