Category Archives: Grants

NSF reviews and grade inflation

I just completed a review for the NSF on a very interesting proposal in the ecological, population biology etc. area. Probably because I am foreign national, this is the first time (maybe the second and the first time I declined?) I was asked to provide a review. After completing my summary I had to choose the final grade. I thought Very Good was the right grade because they were a couple of things that needed to be addresses, but I remembered what John Boyd was saying about "grades" in the army, where being merely excellent meant not being suitable for promotion. "Colonel is excellent in every aspect" meant between the lines that the Colonel was getting sacked. You needed to be super or ultra excellent in every aspect and more. Boyd is an interesting read by the way, although apparently his influence in the military has been in the neighborhood of nothing ("folk hero" has been the definition of someone in the know). One time I also took inspiration from his analysis and synthesis dual approach to learning and understanding for my teaching statement in a job application, but apparently the committee thought I was merely excellent and not super excellent. Now that I remember (refresher here) Boyd was also very very weird, so maybe taking inspiration from his bizarre views was not a good strategy. Better in any case than being boring (remember than interesting is better than boring and fun is better than not fun, although right is most of the time better than wrong and this may create conflicts with the fun part) with all the "my mission in life is teaching undergrads and please give me a job and I will teach 4 courses each quarter (give me a job is the lynchpin, by the way)". So, I might propose again the analysis/synthesis destruction/creation dual approach, just for the fun of it (and I also believe it is an interesting approach, at least it was at the time). I will tell you how it goes. By the way, I enjoying teaching undergrads.

Getting back to grades, I googled online and I came across this 3 years old post from the popular Female Professor blog. After reading that Very Good is not actually very good, but, meh, kinda good, I bumped my grade to Excellent since I believe that the proposal should get funded. Be aware fellow reviewers that what you write should reflect what you think as well as what they think you are thinking. Since you do not know what they are thinking, bumping up might be generally a good strategy. At least, that was my choice.

IOF Marie Curie Fellowship – from applying to winning (Part 2)

Part 1 is here.

If you want to have a good shot at the MC Fellowships you need a strong CV,  a strong project and credible host insitution/supervisors.

However, it is not enough, and a good “technical” preparation of the proposal goes a long way. When I was checking online for tips coming from previous MC winners, I was lucky enough to land on a webpage (I could not find it later on, probably it was brought down) that was basically reporting the “reviewer’s sheet”, the paper that reviewers had to fill out when judging the proposal. Every question was very specific and it was a repetition of the sub-paragraphs (almost) explicitly requested in the proposal, but in question form. For instance, “has the applicant clearly explained the potential for collaboration between the two institutions?” or “is the potential for the advancement of European scientific research clear?”.  I decided to maintain all the sub-paragraph explicitly requested in the proposal and to add in bold the questions (with no bullets or numbers) I found on the “reviewer’s sheet”, but in positive form, that is

Benefit gained from undertaking the project at European Research Area (ERA) level


Scientific, technological, socio-economic rationale for carrying out further research in the field


Contribution of training provided to diversifying/broadening the competencies of the researcher, and how this will influence the researcher's career development

So, I explicitly stated and explicitly answered.

This helped me prepare a tight and concise proposal where I carefully explained each and every topic of interest for the reviewers. And in case of the repetitions in multiple sections of the same concepts, I simply did not care and carried on.

It was particularly challenging to prepare the “Implementation” section, in which I was meant to describe facilities and structures of the two institutions (UCSC and Polytechnic of Milan), language support, childcare, lodging, transportations, clearly topics I knew very little about. In addition, I never worked at the Polytechnic of Milan, so who knows about transportation and all the rest.

What I did was reading very carefully the websites of the to institutions, where a wealth of information (otherwise skipped) was provided. Language courses, number of apartments/houses available for faculties or research scholars, childcare facilities, everything.

Or how to write the section “Benefit of the mobility to the European Research Area”? Good question. In that case I stressed that Italy, my country of birth and residency and my return country for the reintegration phase of the MC, has been one of the founding members of the European Union and thus “I feel the need to give my contribution to ERA excellence and to Europe to fulfilling its research and innovation potential. I will bring back to the ERA newly acquired skills, knowledge and perspectives and I will transfer them through teaching, great scientific research and communication events and projects.” Maybe slightly off-topic, but quite moving nonetheless.

Last, editing. I do not know how many mistakes I made. Everything all right, do not panic, after reading so many times the same material it is very easy to (subconsciously) skip whole sections and thus missing weird mistakes that are definitely making an impression on reviewers of sloppy preparation. I remember that IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) became in my proposal the International Project on Climate Change and the Center for Stock Assessment Research (CSTAR) became the Center for Stock Analysis and Recruitment (weird, isn’it?). And I did not even catch them, my colleagues did. So, ask for help, reach out. Offer money, chat time when they break up with the girlfriend/boyfriend, eternal gratitude (does not work that well), dietary advice, share life experiences to create a stronger bond, some insights on the role of Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian war (maybe it works),  roof repair, plumbing work, whatever, but ask for help. Ask for 3 hours of reading. And I am not talking about the research part, that should be set well in advance, but just looking for unclear sentences, typos, bad references, formatting, all the stuff that we don’t think it is absolutely essential, but in reality is. Because you can never make a second first impression and sloppiness is not something conducive to a good first impression.

And put in the proposal at least a figure explaining one critical part of the proposal and a GANTT. They help a lot.

PS, I now offer consultations for Marie Curie IF proposals.

IOF Marie Curie Fellowship – from applying to winning (Part 1)

At the end of 2001 I received an awesome email message stating that my final score for my 2011 IOF MC Fellowship proposal was 93 and changes (here is the evaluation sheet). After a brief and sweat-inducing google search, I was confident I was getting financed (threshold was around 91).

When I was preparing my MC proposal I was desperately looking for some success stories, guidelines, whatever, and there were none (except at this awesome cyberplace). I think it is good to share the various steps that led me to win the MC Fellowships.

tl;dr I had a good project in mind, I decided to apply (3 weeks for writing), I won.

Long story

Approximately one year before applying for the 2011 MC round, I applied for the Italian FIRB grant, which at the time was reserved to young Italian scientists at various stages of their careers. I prepared the FIRB proposal with my colleagues Daniele Bevacqua and Marti Pujolar (click here for the proposal, half in Italian and half in English). Although FIRB money was assigned to a single researcher and not to a group, the plan was to get Daniele and Marti onboard with a couple of post doc scholarships.

In 2011 I was short listed for the FIRB and I had to fly from Santa Cruz (I was working with Marc Mangel and MRAG at the time) to Rome to present my project to 3 Italian scientists at the Italian Ministry for Research. The format was 12 minutes for the presentation plus 5 minutes for questions (all in English, talk is here). Meanwhile, I received an email from some scientific society informing that the deadline for submitting a Marie Curie proposal was 3 weeks away. After brief and intense thinking, I decided to apply for the MC International Marie Curie Fellowship with the plan of spending to years at the University of California Santa Cruz and one year (re-integration period) at the Polytechnic of Milan. I was confident I had a good project in mind (very similar to the one I submitted for the Italian FIRB), and 3 weeks seemed enough time to prepare the 30-page proposal (well..). I pitched my project to Marc Mangel and Carlos Garza at UCSC (my international supervisors, Marc was faculty at the Department of Applied Math and Statistics, Carlos an adjunct faculty at Ocean Sciences) and to Marino Gatto (the “scientist in charge” of the project) at the Polytechnic of Milan. They accepted to be my supervisors and I started writing furiously, although I wouldn’t say lucidly. This time I prepared the whole proposal myself (with agonizing hours spent preparing the whole ‘why the institutions are appropriate’), while Marc, Carlos and Marino provided very valuable feedback. I was able to submit the proposal a couple of days before the deadline and made a promise to myself I would never prepare later proposals in less than a couple of months, you know how it goes.

In September I received the results for the FIRB. Unfortunately, I did not get the grant for just one point over 70 total points. The justification was that while my project was great and my presentation in Rome had been fantastic, I forgot to present some aspects of the budget. Of course they were wrong, since I presented (during a 12-minute science talk!!!!) in detail the whole budget (see here). Anyway, if you want to get frustrated, just try to present your case to some bureaucrats, yes, sure. Especially Italian bureaucrats. They are half laughing at you, seriously, no collaboration whatsoever. More angry than disappointed, I almost forgot about my proposal when I received the email with my score for the MC. Well done. Also, the MC IOF is way better than the FIRB Fellowship. Well done again.

What it takes to win an ERC starting research grant

According to the ERC (European Research Council) webpage, ERC Starting and Consolidator Grants (from now on just ERC grants) “aim to support up-and-coming research leaders who are about to establish a proper research team and to start conducting independent research in Europe”. In brief, candidates for ERC grants are researchers of any nationality with 2-7 (Starting) and 7-14 (Consolidator) years of experience since completion of PhD. A project must be submitted. Research must be conducted in a public or private research organization located in one of the EU Member State or Associated Countries. The funding is up to € 1.5 (Starting) to 2 (Consolidator) million, and the duration is up to 5 years. The sole criterion for assigning a ERC grants is excellence, considering both publication record and the proposed project. According to official stats, the overall success rate for ERC grants in 2013 was 9%.

Up to 2011, the most successful institutions (combining starting and consolidator grants) were CNRS (France), University of Cambridge (UK), University of Oxford (UK), Max Planck Society (Germany), EPFL (Lusanne, Switzerland), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel), ETH (Zurich, Switzerland), Imperial College (London, UK), University College London (UK), Weizmann Institute (Israel).

For Marie Curie Fellowships  (data is for year 2012), success rate was 19.19% for Intra-European Fellowships, and 20.09% for International Outgoing Fellowships (I have one of those). So, there is a substantial drop in success rate (as expected) going from MC Fellowships to ERC grants .

There are 3 domains for ERC grants: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Social Sciences & Humanities.

The Life Sciences domain is divided in 9 more specific categories:

  • LS1 Molecular & Structural Biology & Biochemistry
  • LS2 Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics & System Biology
  • LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology
  • LS4 Physiology, Pathophysiology & Endocrinology
  • LS5 Neurosciences & Neural Disorders
  • LS6 Immunity & Infection
  • LS7 Diagnostic Tools, Therapies & Public Health
  • LS8 Evolutionary, Population & Environmental Biology
  • LS9 Applied Life Sciences & Non-Medical Biotechnology

I will focus on sub-domain LS8 Evolutionary, Population & Environmental Biology since it is the one closer to my research interests and activities.

For the 2013 round, there were 9 winning researchers of ERC Starting grants (I could not find info for the Consolidator grants, it might be they are not out yet) whose projects fell into the LS8 subdomain, 4 are women and 5 are men. I was able to check CV/publications of all of them.

In particular, I checked where they published their first-author publications (nobody knows the contribution of the third author in a 7-author publication in Science. Did she/he provided some kind of feedback? Contributed to the idea? Helped with analysis, programming, statistics etc.? Provided moral support? Who knows). I just recorded the best journals in which they published as first-authors. "Best journals" was defined just in terms of reputation/historical ranking of the journal, without any formal threshold. I won’t name names (all bullets below are anonymous), but you can google yourself if you are so inclined. Here we go, each bullet point is for a single researcher:

  • Journal of Theoretical Biology,  PNAS (multiple times), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society  B, Genetics.
  • Trends in Genetics, Molecular Ecology (multiple times), BMC Evolutionary Ecology, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
  • Science, Functional Ecology, American Naturalist, PNAS, Conservation Biology.
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society B (multiple times), Evolution (multiple times), PNAS, Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
  • PNAS, Nature Geoscience, Science, Geology.
  • PNAS, Science, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Trends in Genetics.
  • Nature, Science, Ecological Applications, American Naturalists, Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology.
  • Science, PNAS, Ecology Letters, Functional Ecology, Annual Review in Ecology and Systematics, Nature.
  • Science, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Proceedings of the Royal Society B (multiple times), American Naturalist, Molecular Ecology, Evolution.

So, 8 out 9 winners published in a top multidisciplinary journal (Science, Nature, PNAS), some of them multiple times, some of them also as coauthors (it is possible that the researcher who did not come up with a publication in Science, Nature, PNAS actually published there, but I did not get it). All of them published in top journals either in the "Ecology" or "Evolutionary Biology" category (some of them in both).

All of them are specialized researchers, they work on one (or some very closely related) problem(s) (with exceptional results, see above), but without much diversification (no formal threshold also in this case, I just read the publication titles/research interests).

It seems that publishing in a top multidisciplinary journal is a (almost) necessary (although likely not sufficient, other researcher may have published in top multidisciplinary journals, but did not win) condition to win an ERC grant, isn’t it?

Something to keep in mind in the case you want to apply for an ERC grant (clearly stated also here "[...] including significant publications (as main author) in major international peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journals, or in the leading international peer-reviewed journals of their respective field").