30. Oct. 2023

Large and notorious projects providing funding for science tend to be a safe bet. However, they are also in higher demand and not everyone will succeed. The newly unified Grants Office at CEITEC MUNI has the ambition to help scientists find grant calls that they have not yet experienced, but which often better match their needs. Alice Valterová, the new Head of the Grants Office, is embarking with her team on the implementation of the new vision of CEITEC MUNI's grant policy. And they are certainly not lacking courage.

Aren't you worried that scientists will look askance at lesser-known grant opportunities?

It's not about any untrustworthy funding sources, it's about scientists not having the space to look for specific calls and study their conditions. That's what we want to do for them. And we want to do it with thorough preparation – going down to the level of individual research groups, mapping their history, their success rate in submitting grant applications, finding out what partners they have and their funding structure. Talking to them about where they are going and what trends they are following. All of this should give us an idea of what range of calls are relevant to them and when a suitable call opens up, we can approach them to go ahead with our support. It's obviously not a one-way relationship, we don't want to get into a situation where scientists rely too much on us to pursue grant calls for them, but we want to create as supportive an environment as possible for them to get funding.

That sounds like a very comprehensive service. What role does the fact that the agenda of two departments, one dedicated to the preparation of grant applications and the other to their implementation, has recently been merged play in this?

The merger of the two departments was a logical step because in fact, it was one service. This will allow us to have control over the entire grant process from project preparation to implementation and closure. The aim is to ensure that information flows more efficiently within the unified team and to continuously improve the collaboration between preparation and implementation, which will then translate into an increase in the quality of service provided.

What capacity do you have within the team to do this?

For the pure project agenda, we currently have about 10 full-time colleagues and several part-time colleagues. We help not only with writing grant applications, but also with adhering to strict project rules if funding is obtained, keeping an eye on trends in evaluation, project control approaches and so on.

We are now looking to add a person with a scientific background in the life sciences to our team, so we will be able to assess the relevance of individual grant calls with greater focus and more quickly.

We are also going to do extensive data collection and evaluation so that we have a realistic baseline to fall back on. We plan to keep something like a “scorecard” of research groups to keep track of their needs. I'm already being helped by a new format for research group leaders to meet, so-called Leaders' Lunches, where I take notes on what type of collaboration researchers are looking for, what they think is important, or how trends are developing in their research. I pass this information on to the team so we know what to watch for and what to focus on. Then, when a relevant grant call comes up, we are able to prepare in time to polish the project. There is nothing worse than writing a project at the last minute, because then it often forces you to recycle old texts and the project is not of good quality. We also need to have enough time to find something that is really sexy to the evaluators, so that it takes the whole project up a level and helps it succeed in the wide competition.

What do you mean by "sexy"?

It used to be enough to write a basic research grant, join a particular call, and then hope to be better than the others in that sea of projects. Nowadays, thematic calls are more and more frequent, the topics are defined "from above" according to the current priorities of, for example, the European Union or the Czech Republic, so the projects cover much narrower topics than before and it is even harder to find what catches the attention of the evaluators. It is therefore essential to describe in the project the implications not only for the research area, but ideally to define the project's overlap with broader societal themes and challenges. Increasingly, cross-sectoral grants are also being announced, involving the corporate sector alongside academics.

That is why it is important that we at CEITEC MUNI pay attention to the interconnection of individual activities and do not close ourselves into a scientific bubble, but look for synergies beyond it. It is essential that the research strategy is in line with the investment plan and communication activities. We need to have a clear idea of what technologies are key, how to work effectively with leaders in research fields that have the potential for further collaborations, and how to communicate these collaborations effectively. It is not enough to boast about winning a prestigious grant; we also need to make visible the subsequent impact of the project on the institution, the region or society as a whole. The parts of grants that deal with impact and effective dissemination are increasingly influencing success rates and need to be addressed with a strong strategy.

But this is something that goes beyond the Grant Office...

Yes, this area requires attention and coordination from the senior management of CEITEC MUNI. I believe we have everything we need and we just need to set priorities and give a clear mandate, it will not happen by itself.

Let's go back to the innovations you are planning to make the grant application process more efficient. What else do you have planned?

We plan to dive into analysing old projects. To look at what was good, what was bad, what the evaluators criticised us for, what they recommended, and to prepare general conclusions from this, which we would present to scientists in the form of seminars or training sessions, so that they don't have to study this feedback on previous projects themselves. Often, they don't even get access to this information because by default they only have access to their applications.

We want to set up face-to-face meetings that are tailored to the individual, workshops on new calls, and a grants department portal that provides clear information on funders and a schedule of available calls.

We also want to focus on developing our competencies – there is always more to learn and trends in research funding and grant evaluation are changing dynamically.

Are you therefore also following good practice abroad? Is there anything that has inspired you?

These things are hard to find on the internet. The level of grant support is probably quite varied – I have come across relatively sophisticated grant support at the University of Tartu, for example, or excellent analytical tools at VIB, but in general our level of support – and especially the implementation phase of grants – is high. I attribute this to the challenging legislative environment in the Czech Republic, which is probably quite psychedelic compared to other countries. However, we will certainly be inspired by some aspects from abroad.

I also think they are better in attracting and retaining postdocs abroad. Institutions have their own fund from which they finance, for example, a three-day stay of two or three selected postdocs. They then take them around the institute and introduce them to the leaders of the research groups. Having a nice, modern website is nice, but seeing the super-modern labs for yourself and talking to the scientists in person is the best marketing.

And then we can bring to light the possibilities of funding postdoctoral positions through grants like the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowships, where we have a very high success rate, and offer support to those interested in training.

What about work-life balance? Do you have time for a private life in the heat of work?

Not at all at the moment. I sincerely hope that the situation will improve soon, once the new activities are well set up and underway. My biggest frustration right now is that there are no concrete results yet, and it will be quite a while before I can present any tangible outputs. All the changes are happening on the fly to agendas already in motion and I can only thank my team for the way they are approaching the changes and supporting me. A big boost can also come from increased collaboration with senior management, who will set priorities in line with other activities at CEITEC MUNI.

But I have to say that I am enjoying it very much, it is a new impulse and I have so many ideas what else could be done and invented. I just need to spread my energy well myself. This is not going to be a sprint, but a long marathon.