Tips from the funding bodies

“Really good research is often interdisciplinary”, said Kerstin Sahlin from the Swedish Research Council (VR) at a seminar in Lund on how the land lies for research funding. She wanted to debunk the myth that VR is not good at encouraging interdisciplinary projects. Quite the opposite – a working group has recently been appointed specifically for this type of application, she explained.

Goran Blom­qvist, Kerstin Sahlin, Lennart Nilsson

A trio that represents a lot of research funding! L–r: Göran Blomqvist, Kerstin Sahlin and Lennart Nilsson

Kerstin Sahlin, who is Secretary General for the humanities and social sciences at VR, was accompanied by Göran Blomqvist, CEO of Riksbankens jubileumsfond (RJ), and Lennart Nilsson, CEO of the Crafoord Foundation. The seminar was organised by luPOD (Lund University Postdoctoral Programme) and there was a lot of interest from young researchers in the three funding providers. There were many questions about how they view and assess applications. Who gets funding and who goes without?

If it is possible to talk about trends in external research funding, then the winds are turning from excellent individual researchers to broad, interdisciplinary projects. The funding bodies are aware of the ‘Matthew effect’ – that those who have are given even more – and Lennart Nilsson made clear that his foundation did not want to give to those who already have. Göran Blomqvist reflected on how to reach the next-best researchers, and Kerstin Sahlin said that VR is somewhat more cautious when it comes to rich solo players.

“However, we are under strong political control, and we have to take into account the directives we receive. At the same time, we also serve as advisers to the Government”, she said.

All three said that they were concerned about young researchers – that is, those who have completed a PhD within the past eight years (not counting any parental leave). However, doctoral students should not bother to apply to RJ. They have better chances with VR, and the Crafoord Foundation doesn’t give any funding to cover applicants’ salaries.

“We don’t want to be employers. Those who receive grants from us have to be employed at a higher education institution”, said Lennart Nilsson.

His foundation also sifts out all applications that don’t meet the conditions for application – which is a large number.

“Read through the conditions properly before you apply”, he urged the Lund University researchers.

Göran Blomqvist is irritated by the phenomenon of heads of department who encourage their staff to submit as many applications as possible, because quantity is rewarded in internal allocation systems.

“It’s as if new public management had got its claws into academia, and we definitely don’t want to encourage that. Focus on the best idea instead!”

RJ is turning 50 and in conjunction with this is distributing an extra SEK 100 million. Quality and originality are even more important than previously, and they are careful to follow up and evaluate ‘their’ projects. Almost 30 per cent get into difficulties along the way, and these are often about how the project integrates into the rest of the department, rather than the actual research. RJ has started to give grants for sabbatical semesters and in conjunction with this requires a statement from the head of department that the researcher in question really is released from other duties – with the exception of supervising doctoral students.

The success rate for applications to VR and RJ is low, between seven and eight per cent, and has fallen. Kerstin Sahlin explained that the number of applications has increased and competition is fierce.

“A lot of funding is also tied up in infrastructure such as large research facilities, registers and databases and research on these”, she said.

Göran Blomqvist said that in the face of fierce competition, it is particularly important to do thorough preparations before applying.

“Look what is already being done in the field, both in Sweden and abroad, and talk to colleagues – especially more senior researchers.”

Both he and Kerstin Sahlin pointed out that many applications often contain an enthusiastic presentation of the project and the idea behind it, but that the description of how the project will be executed is often vague.

“It is important to see the problems and have a plan for how they can be solved”, said Göran Blomqvist.

Kerstin Sahlin also urged the researchers not to write their applications for too narrow an audience. VR evaluation panels include people from all disciplines and they all need to understand what the project is about.

Lennart Nilsson said that humanities researchers are generally not very good at applying for large grants.

“It’s perhaps because you work alone more – collaborate with others and establish research groups”, he advised the luPOD researchers.

 Text and photo: Maria Lindh