31. May 2022 | Magazine:

Reboot: Research Funding Network starts up again Experienced colleagues offer support during the application process

TU Braunschweig’s Research Funding Network has been relaunched under a new name. It was launched in 2015 as the “DFG Network” to motivate third-party funding for research and the promotion of early career scientists. We talked to Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke (Spokesman of the Network Advisory Board) and Professor Peter Hecker, Vice President for Research and Early Career Scientists, about what has changed with the reboot.

The Research Funding Network at TU Braunschweig helps scientists at all stages of their careers with research grant applications, individual proposals and collaborative projects, and especially with the cooperation with international partners. Picture credits: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

A brief look back: How did the network come about?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: The Research Funding Network originally came about as an initiative of the then VP for Research, Professor Dieter Jahn, in 2015. The committee, which was founded at the time under the name “DFG Network”, was a direct response to the declining trend in third-party funding awards and funding amounts over the years 2009 to 2014, according to the DFG Funding Atlas. In the DFG Network, on the one hand, root causes for this were researched, and on the other hand, concrete measures for the promotion of early career scientists, especially in the postdoctoral area, were advanced.

Prof. Peter Hecker, Vice President for Research and Early Career Scientists. Picture credits: Max Fuhrmann/TU Braunschweig

Professor Peter Hecker: After my predecessor in office successfully initiated the network, in 2020 we reviewed the work and successes to date in a core team and considered how we could further develop the work of the committee and spread it over more shoulders. To date, much of the advisory work has been done by a smaller group of experienced researchers who naturally also want to focus on their own research. Therefore, the idea came up to include more researchers in a newly established research funding network who also bring specific knowledge and experience of special funding instruments, and at the same time cover different disciplines.

What measures were you able to derive from the root cause research?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: It quickly became clear that targeted and low-threshold advisory services, opportunities for (informal) networking among researchers at different career stages (e.g. TU’s Junior Professor Network and PostDoc Network) as well as various financial assistance (financed by the Governance Board from the Future Fund [Zukunftsfond]) were necessary and effective.

With an opening of the funding focus beyond the German Research Foundation, the “Research Funding Network” was therefore founded as a permanent institution of TU’s Research Services and European Office, chaired by the respective Vice President for Research and Early Career Scientists.

What is the main task of the network today?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: The aim is to provide scientists with low-threshold support for successful applications. Especially for applicants in an early academic career phase, the complexity of the first individual applications or the coordination of joint research projects in later career stages should not be underestimated. Here, it is essential to find experienced colleagues who can accompany the application process, i.e. provide advice and support and help to avoid typical mistakes.

Who can contact the network?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: Basically, the network is open to all researchers at TU Braunschweig – at all different stages of their careers. Whether it’s about initial research grants, individual proposals or joint research projects, it doesn’t matter: experienced colleagues can share their knowledge and thus increase the chances of success.

What types of funding are involved, for example?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: Classically, there are three different types of proposals, which are also typical of different academic career stages and are becoming increasingly complex: special funding for early career scientists (e.g. Emmy Noether Programme, ERC Starting Grants, Walter Benjamin Programme), classic individual proposals as well as smaller collaborative proposals (e.g. interdisciplinary projects), and finally large coordinated programmes in the area of collaborative research (e.g. Collaborative Research Centres, Research Training Groups or Research Groups). Depending on the funding organisation, certain things have to be taken into account, and unfortunately they are not always listed in full in the relevant fact sheets.

From your experience: What often causes researchers problems when submitting proposals?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: For any proposal to have a good chance of success, it is essential to convince the reviewers of the originality and value of the research idea presented. That’s not always easy, especially if you’re very deep in the subject and sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees.

At what level do reviewers need to be met? How do you argue the value of an idea? As a pure gain in knowledge, or perhaps economically or socially? How detailed and concrete should work plans be presented? – These are really all quite obvious, yet crucial questions for success, for which there are unfortunately only specific answers in each individual discipline and often also for different funding bodies.

What does the support look like in practice?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: Well, perhaps first of all, the Research Funding Network always provides help for self-help. So it’s not about exerting thematic influence or even any form of censorship. It is about being able to benefit from the structural knowledge of experienced colleagues. By structuring the network into an advisory board with a steering function and a team of experts (FE team), the network is built in such a way that colleagues who already have relevant experience in proposals of a certain kind and/or in closely related disciplines can share their experiences. This ranges from critically reading a proposal with appropriate feedback to practising presentations in reviews or hearings.

Professor Peter Hecker: In addition, of course, our colleagues from the Research Services and the European Office offer advice to all TU Braunschweig scientists. An example worth mentioning here is the support offered in the context of ERC applications, which also includes interview training, as well as support for applications to the European Programme of the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture (MWK). In this respect, the services offered by the Research Services and the European Office and the advice from the network complement each other ideally.

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: For example, I myself was a member of the DFG Senate and Grants Committee for Research Training Groups for six years and participated in walk-through exercises for several Research Training Group proposals submitted by colleagues, gave tips and pointed out potential problems or topics often discussed in the committee. This was found to be quite helpful and the applications were fortunately successful afterwards.

The research areas and topics seem to be highly diverse. Where does the expertise come from to give advice in such depth?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: The thematic and structural heterogeneity of the various disciplines and funding organisations is indeed a central challenge for the functioning of the network. But in the meantime, more than 40 colleagues at TU Braunschweig belong to the team of experts and even if the exact thematic expertise will not always be available, I am very confident that suitable people from the respective disciplines can be found to help. In addition, structural help beyond the discipline can also be extremely helpful, e.g. for the exchange of experience in the area of applications for ERC grants or the Emmy Noether Programme. Of course, I am also particularly pleased that colleagues who are or were members of the relevant approval committees of the various funding organisations are willing to share their expertise and their own experiences.

Do you also advise in English?

Professor Wolf-Tilo Balke: Depending on the funding organisation, applications must also be submitted in English, so the Research Funding Network often advises in English. In addition, we have many researchers with an international background at TU Braunschweig and numerous proposal projects with international partners.

Keyword strategy: How do the network and the TU Governance Board work together?

Professor Peter Hecker: Strictly speaking, the new Research Funding Network consists of two teams. On the one hand, there is the already described team of experts (FE team), in which scientists from different disciplines are available to provide the best possible and subject-specific support for researchers at TU Braunschweig. In addition, there is also an advisory board in which five colleagues work together and represent the interface between the FE team and the Governance Board. Furthermore, Professor Georg Garnweitner, the DFG’s trusted lecturer, is a permanent advisory member of the advisory board.

In order to coordinate with the Governance Board, the Advisory Board, led by Wolf-Tilo Balke as spokesperson, regularly exchanges ideas with me as Chair of the Network and advises the entire Governance Board on strategic issues. Furthermore, the Advisory Board is involved in recommending candidates for the Agnes Pockels Fellowship and the Postdoc Career Grant and thus supports TU Braunschweig’s Research Service, which runs these programmes to support young researchers. In this respect, there is close integration into the work of the Governance Board and the Research Service.

Thank you very much.