Bodil Holst was born in Denmark and has followed a truly European research career path. Now a senior scientist (Habilitandin) at the Max-Planck Institut für Strömungsforschung  in Göttingen, Germany, she received her Ph.D. in experimental solid-state physics from Cambridge University and she is a former Marie Curie and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow. Recently, she participated in a course for women in science, aimed at helping researchers and research administrators to write professional and competitive proposals for the Fifth Framework Programme. The course was organized by the Centre of Excellence Women and Science ( CEWS ), together with the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators ( EARMA ). Here, Holst tells Next Wave what she learned.
Much to my surprise, I found "From the Proposal to the Final Payment (European Union Research and Development Contracts)" not only extremely useful but also highly entertaining. I was particularly taken by the hands-on, no-nonsense approach of the main course presenter, Dr. Sean McCarthy, head of the consultancy company Hyperion . He had an impressive ability to tailor his presentation to the audience and to focus on concrete goals. McCarthy also encouraged active participation by the course participants, who covered a wide range of age groups and career stages--from Ph.D. students to senior researchers and research administrators already in charge of European Union (EU) contracts.
That could have been a problem, but McCarthy managed to turn his audience's diverse backgrounds into an advantage, drawing on individual experience. The very positive feedback at the end of the course clearly indicated that everybody left with a feeling that it had been useful.
Personally, I found that the benefits of the course went far beyond its title. Not only did I learn about how to write a proposal for the Fifth Framework Programme, but many of the tips and suggestions on proposal writing will be useful for applications to other funding bodies. I also gained a deeper understanding of research politics in general and the EU structure in particular.
One aspect of the course that was a bit of an eye-opener for me was the importance of "lobbying" and "selling" one's science. "Brussels is not simply funding good science, it is funding good science which they think can solve a problem they have," it was pointed out. These issues are not issues that we--as scientists--like to have to worry about, but course participants gleaned useful advice on how to spot them. The best way to minimise the time spent on grant applications for any funding body is to gain a good understanding of the criteria, formal and informal, under which that body operates.
The 3-day course was separated into two sections: I spent the first 2 days in Bonn, followed a month later by 1 day in Brussels. When signing up for the course, I had been a bit irritated by this arrangement, as I thought this demanded an unnecessary amount of travel time. However, it was very much worthwhile. I took the opportunity of being in Brussels to arrange a meeting with the scientific officer responsible for my field, to discuss my idea for a research proposal. Finding the relevant scientific officer was a bit tricky and involved several phone calls, but once the contact was established, I found him very helpful and accommodating. I can only recommend that other scientists make similar arrangements.
During the meeting, I mentioned that I had registered as an external expert in the EU database and that I would like to become an evaluator. A week later, I got an invitation to participate in an evaluation--an experience that I'm sure will be interesting from a scientific point of view, as well as a good preparation for writing my own proposals. The extensive course material, which had been handed out in Bonn, contained several homework exercises.
A further advantage of meeting again after a month was that course participants had the opportunity to look over these exercises, which then formed the basis for a very fruitful "review" session. The second part of the time in Brussels was spent on an official visit to the Research Directorate-General of the European Commission, with interesting presentations by the head of the Information and Communication Unit, Dr. Juergen Rosenbaum, and Tanya Leigh from the Women and Science Unit.
A minor part of the course was devoted to the issue of "Gender Mainstreaming in EU Research". Dr. Sybille Krummacher from CEWS gave an enlightening presentation with interesting statistics. She had a very good understanding of the problems faced by female scientists, no doubt at least partly because she herself trained as a physicist and has a background in research.
To be frank, reports on the small number of female physicists (or the low number of female scientists winning research grants) though important in raising awareness, have little impact on my daily life as a scientist. It is initiatives such as this one, which train me to stand out from the general competition, that help me move ahead in my career. I believe that tailoring this course to the needs of female scientists and research administrators was Dr . Krummacher's idea, and I would like to thank her for that.
Winning a large EU-grant application would be a great plus for my career, and this course will certainly improve my chances. In short, I can highly recommend it to any female scientist or research administrator, regardless of her career stage.
The March session of "From the Proposal to the Final Payment" is already booked up! Preregistration inquiries for a subsequent course (most likely to be held 16-17 April in Bonn and 17 May in Brussels) can be sent to Mary McCarthy  (Hyperion). Please be sure to cc CEWS' Sybille Krummacher .