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"Confidence is what counts"

Annegret Wilde advises junior researchers at the University of Freiburg who would like to apply for grants from the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Freiburg, Sep 01, 2017

"Confidence is what counts"

Photo: Patrick Seeger

What are the keys to a successful application to the DFG? Which application format suits which project? What do evaluators rate particularly highly? These and other questions on the topic "Applying Successfully for DFG Funding" („Erfolgreich DFG-Mittel einwerben") are the focus of a panel discussion. Prof. Dr. Annegret Wilde, the DFG liaison officer at the University of Freiburg, and the Science Support Centre of Freiburg Research Services are issuing an invitation to the event. In a conversation with Nicolas Scherger, the biologist explains her role as DFG liaison officer – and encourages junior researchers to apply for grants.

Content is key! A well-described research project is a primary determinant of the potential for success of grant applications to the German Research Foundation (DFG), says Annegret Wilde.
Photo: Patrick Seeger

Frau Wilde, you've been the DFG liaison officer at the University of Freiburg since 2012. What are your areas of responsibility?

Annegret Wilde: On the one hand, I inform young applicants, help them in making their first grant application and point out possible stumbling blocks. On the other, if there are conflicts between the university and the DFG, I mediate. But I have to say that I've never had this experience to date. My responsibilities are clearly defined. As the liaison officer, I'm responsible for the entire university. As a result, I don't have the time to read all the applications that our researchers make to the DFG, especially because they come from very different subject cultures. That's what the university's Science Support Centre is for. I cooperate closely with it and it provides outstanding assistance. I do not function as an arbiter and cannot become involved if there is a conflict, for example, among researchers within a DFG project. In these cases, the arbiters of the university's institutions or the DFG resolve the issue.

What are the essential things to include in a grant application?

The scientific project is decisive for the DFG. The researchers should have a clear idea of their project and be able to show publications on the topic about which they are making the grant application. Nevertheless, preliminary works do not have to be so comprehensive for the first grant application. The evaluators must above all be convinced that the applicant can actually carry out the project for which they are applying. By contrast, in applying for grants from the European Union many formalities are important in addition to the research project. This is where the Science Support Centre can help applicants find the right words. Yet the Science Support Centre cannot provide advice on content. After all, the researchers are the ones who are responsible for their project.

How important are, for example the buzzwords "innovative,"
"international," and "interdisciplinary?"

That likely depends on the evaluator. My opinion is that research should always be innovative and internationally-oriented. And in biology, almost all of our work is interdisciplinary. But sometimes a few key words can certainly be helpful. Right now in biology CRISPR-Cas is the big thing. It's a method that allows the targeted editing and modification of DNA. In many projects, this method is state-of-the-art, yet it's not a just an empty refrain if these experimental approaches can really contribute to a gain in knowledge.

At which point in a research career can one confidently file a first application?

After receiving a doctorate. Most start with a research grant in order to work abroad. Some also apply for funding to organize a conference or for their own position. As a young postdoctoral researcher, my first DFG applications came when I was working together with experienced researchers in collaborative research centers. Employment that extends beyond the project period is required for individual projects that allow the hiring of doctoral candidates. Younger applicants are rarely in this position.

What are the pitfalls that young research colleagues are often unaware of?

It's important not to demand too much funding and keep your aims within reasonable bounds. Some applications are too ambitious and the evaluators say, "That can't be achieved with that equipment in that time period." It's better to take on less and to describe the project very well.
What does the researcher want to investigate? With whom do they want to cooperate? What methods will be used? Maintaining a sense of proportion is also important in determining how much funding is requested. When you're filing an application for the first time, you shouldn't ask for financing for two doctoral candidates and a postdoc. In an application for an individual grant, I would never include more than positions for two doctoral candidates or one post doctoral researcher. What is more, it's difficult to apply to receive basic equipment such as computers, certain devices or technicians. The university must provide those.

How do you perceive the competition for DFG funding?

Nationally, the DFG finances about a third of the projects that are submitted. There is no other funding organization, even globally, that has better approval rates than that. I can only encourage people to apply. And there's something else I have to say. Individual projects, meaning applications from individual researchers for specialist assistance or research grants, for example, still account for the lion's share of approved funding – even at the University of Freiburg. That often gets overlooked because the collaborative research centers and excellence competitions are above all in the spotlight.

What do you tell researchers who are making their first funding application to the DFG?

If something is unclear, I always advise them to inquire directly at the DFG. Many are reluctant to do that because they think it will have a negative influence on their application. But that's not true. You can ask the appropriate program contacts at the DFG Head Office any question you would like to, even critical questions. Furthermore, I would also recommend that researchers look at successful grant applications submitted by their superiors. And there are very detailed forms on the DFG's internet site that show what an application should look like. What's important is having the confidence to make the grant application and not to think, "I can't do that yet."

And if the application is rejected?

Then you shouldn't get depressed. It happens, even to experienced colleagues. You learn from it. What many people don't know is that with the DFG it's possible to rework the application after taking the evaluators' comments into consideration. Then the request can be resubmitted. I've already had an application be rejected the first time around and approved on the second go. My advice would be to read the evaluations carefully, share the experience with other researchers and rework the application and project thoroughly before submitting it to the DFG again.

Information on Funding Programs

Panel Discussion: "Successfully Applying for DFG Grants"

The panel discussion "Successfully Applying for DFG Grants" will take place on 10 October 2017, at 2 p.m. in the Biology I Lecture Hall, Hauptstraße 1, 79104 Freiburg. It is open to researchers of all disciplines. Prof. Dr. Jürgen Hennig, of DFG's Review Board for Medicine, Prof. Dr. Christian Mair, of DFG's Language and Linguistics Review Board, Prof. Dr. Annegret Wilde, DFG Liaison Officer, Prof. Dr. Peter Woias, a member of DFG's Approval Committee and the Senate Committee on Research Training Groups, and Dr. Anne-Kathrin Classen, the Group Leader of DFG's Emmy Noether Program will be on the panel. Dr. Frank Krüger of Freiburg Research Services will moderate the discussion. Please register by email by 15 September 2017 at .


German Research Foundation (DFG) Funding Grants in 2015 (in millions of euros, rounded)

Program National University of Freiburg
Individual Grants 886,6 25,2
Collaborative Research Centers 626,6 18,3
Excellence Initiative  545,8 14,5
Priority Programs 194,4 4,2
Research Training Groups 178,2 8,3
Infrastructure 167,6 3,6
Research Units 153,6 3,2
Scientific Prizes, other grants 58,2 0,9
Research Centers 28,5 -
Overall 2.839,60 78,3
Subject Area National University of Freiburg
Medicine 608,1 21,1
Biology 330,4 17,8
Humanities 271,9 9,5
No subject classification 266,3 2,5
Physics 257,2 2,9
Electronic and Systems, Technology, IT 181,1 13,5
Chemistry 171 3,8
Social and Behavioral Sciences 160,6 2,2
Engineering & Production Technology 145,5 0,2
Earth Sciences, Geography 116,5 1,3
Materials’ Science, 
Materials’ Engineering 115,3 0,6
Heat and Process Engineering 77,5 -
Mathematics 68,7 1,1
Agricultural & Forest Sciences,
Landscape Architecture, 
Veterinary Medicine 41,1 1,6
Building, Architecture 28,5 0,2
Total 2.839,60 78,3