The fourth day of September 2023 was historic: at 9.00 in the morning, the doors opened in Hakaniemenranta for the first ever ERC Proposal Reading Day in Finland. The purpose of a Reading Day is to give researchers interested in applying for ERC funding a chance to familiarise themselves with successful (i.e. funded) applications to support them in preparing their own applications.
Three reading days were scheduled for September, as the number of participants was considerably higher than expected, and the events became fully booked soon after registration. Each day contained two separate three-hour reading sessions, each of which received up to 30 enrolments. In other words, nearly 180 researchers were able to familiarise themselves with applications during the reading days. University research services also had willing participants, but due to the high popularity of the events and the ERC’s application schedules, we decided that this time we would give the opportunity to participate primarily to researchers.
Reading Days for ERC applications have previously been organised – and are still regularly organised – in several European countries. We received best-practice support and experience-based tips for our arrangements from our Norwegian ERC NCP colleagues (NCP = National Contact Point, i.e. ERC’s national contact persons). They have organised several similar days not only at their own premises but also at various universities in Norway. As elsewhere, Reading Days have been very popular in Norway. Researchers who feel that they have benefited from participating in the Reading Days when preparing their own applications make their funded applications available.
Reading Days cannot be organised without access to successful applications
The funded applications had to be made available to us so that the Reading Days could be organised. This was a concern for us when preparing the event: will we get enough applications to arrange a Reading Day at all? Approximately 120 researchers with ERC funding from the Horizon 2020 framework programme were approached in Finland, and we received a positive response from about one out of four. In total, we received some 30 applications from researchers who had received Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grants, representing all three ERC domains: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering, and Social Sciences and Humanities.
Even before the request letter was sent, there was a lot of preparatory work. With the assistance of our legal team, we prepared a privacy notice on the content of the applications and a nondisclosure agreement, which each participant had to sign. During the Reading Day, the applications were available to the participants as paper copies. We asked each participant to select the two most interesting applications to read when registering, and these were handed over to them at the beginning of the event. If they had time and wished to do so, the participants could also read other applications during the event. Making notes was allowed, but the participants were not permitted to photograph the applications or remove them from the meeting facilities. There was an almost pious atmosphere in the hall as the participants familiarised themselves with the applications in their respective styles: some spent three hours on two applications, while others tried to go through a large number of applications more quickly.
Aiming at improved quality of applications and national success in future ERC calls
Finland’s call success during the current Horizon Europe programme has been reasonably good, but still below the European average. The Research Council of Finland has traditionally organised support for applicants who have been admitted to the second evaluation stage in the form of interview training, but the early-stage support for the application process has mainly been the responsibility of sites of research. Most researchers do not have access to funded applications, and the Reading Day is a new way to support researchers planning the application at the beginning of the application process.
We asked the participants for feedback after the events, and we were delighted to receive plenty of feedback. Nearly all feedback was positive, and the practical arrangements were also praised. Based on the feedback received, participation in the Reading Days provided the researchers with an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the funded applications in a versatile manner, and the event also gave them ideas on how to structure their own application. Many also found it useful to see more than one application because it helped them to understand that a successful application can be written in more than one style.
On the other hand, reading different types of applications also clarified the idea of which features in the structure of the application are common for successful applications. Some participants realised that in order to receive ERC funding, you do not need to be superhuman. Such observations will hopefully reduce the ‘ERC cold-feet syndrome’ and encourage the participants to apply for funding more confidently. The more negative feedback mainly concerned the selection of applications available. Although many participants were satisfied with what was available, some would have liked to have seen more recently funded applications closer to their own field. In the future, we hope to receive more applications from the funded researchers to expand the selection of applications for the reading days.
We are also considering the possibility of organising reading events outside Helsinki in the future, in which case researchers living in Northern and Eastern Finland, for example, would have better opportunities to participate.
Finally, once again, we organisers would like to thank all researchers who kindly made their applications available to us and enabled us to arrange a successful Reading Day! They also received praise from the participants for the support opportunities they provided.