Using European funding to develop an independent career in social psychology: The ERC Starting Grant
04.11.2015, by Kai Sassenberg in opinion
Thomas L. Webb, University of Sheffield, UK
European Research Council (ERC) starting grants fund researchers who are within 7 years of completing their PhD and who have the potential to become independent research leaders. The ERC also funds consolidator grants (for those 7-12 years post PhD) and advanced grants for more senior applicants. The proposed research needs to represent a pioneering idea that could lead to a step change in understanding. Applications that introduce unconventional, innovative approaches are encouraged under a ‘high risk, high gain’ philosophy. This article will discuss my experiences as a social psychologist of applying for a starting grant in the 2011 call (under panel SH4: The human mind and its complexity). I will also aim to provide some lessons learned from working on my project investigating ‘the Ostrich Problem’ – a term that we use to refer to the motivated avoidance or rejection of information about goal progress (for a review, see Webb, Chang, & Benn, 2013).
I first became aware of the grants provided by the ERC in the Spring of 2010 when my Head of Department (then Professor Turpin) and Director of Research (then Professor Sheeran) suggested that my profile fitted with the scheme (namely, that I was less than 7 years post-PhD and had published significant papers, including at least one independently of my PhD advisor). At that time, the funding schemes had only been running for three years (the first call was 2007), but they already had a reputation both for providing substantial funding for innovative research projects and for being fiercely competitive. My host institution (the University of Sheffield) had had some success in obtaining grants from the ERC, although primarily within the more biological life sciences. I read one of these successful proposals (Professor Slate’s application on evolutionary genetics in avians), studied the information provided by the ERC, and attended a briefing session on ERC grants in London organized by the UK research office. I emerged both intimidated by the scale of the task ahead and the relatively slim chances of success (typically, around 10% of proposals are funded), but also convinced that the rewards of obtaining the funding would be worth the investment of time required.
My work up to that point had focused broadly on self-regulation – the processes by which people control their thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to obtain desired outcomes – and more specifically on the role of motivation (e.g., Webb & Sheeran, 2006) and the way in which implementation intentions (i.e., if-then planning) can help to bridge the gap between motivation and action (e.g., Webb & Sheeran, 2007; 2008). I also taught a module on self-regulation, much of which focused on control theory (Carver & Scheier, 1982; Powers, 1973) as a framework for understanding self-regulation. I was struck both by how useful control theory was in this regard, but also by how limited the empirical work had been to date (e.g., research concerning the effects of self-focus on self-regulation, Carver, 1974; Carver, Blaney, & Scheier, 1979). Although there were other findings that could be understood in terms of control theory (for a review, see Johnson, Chang, & Lord, 2006), the model also seemed to make a number of assumptions – not least that people would necessarily keep track of their progress with respect to their goals. I could think of numerous anecdotal examples of instances where people seemed to prefer not to assess their current state, even if so doing might appear to be useful (e.g., checking the balance of a bank account to ensure that there are sufficient funds before making a purchase)
A few days looking at the empirical evidence provided a more robust foundation. The example that I led my application with was that of diabetics monitoring (or rather not monitoring) their blood glucose levels. Evidence suggests that people with diabetes are motivated to monitor their blood glucose levels (Shankar et al., 2007) yet regular self-monitoring is uncommon (Evans et al., 1999). It seemed that there were occasions when people do not monitor their goal progress, even for goals that they rate as important – a phenomena that I decided to term “the ostrich problem”. However, there also seemed to be lots of unanswered questions that warranted empirical examination – Do people monitor their current standing in relation to their goals? If so, what do they monitor, when and how? If not, then why not and what strategies and interventions might promote monitoring? And so the seeds of an application for the ERC Starting Grant Scheme were sown.
I worked on the application for most of the summer of 2010 and submitted in November of that year. The ERC require applicants to submit two documents: (i) a short proposal that includes a section on the PIs “leadership potential”, a CV (in narrative form), and a synopsis of the proposal and (ii) a longer proposal that would only be looked at if the shorter proposal passed muster. During the process, I was helped by my former PhD advisor, Professor Sheeran, as well as colleagues at the University of Sheffield, and members of the research and innovation services team. I am indebted to all of these people – they provided access to others proposals, guidance on the grant scheme and, most importantly, feedback on my proposal. There was some disagreement with respect to the title, with some viewing “the ostrich problem” as frivolous, others as succinctly capturing the issue. Either way, the ERC required a 20-character acronym and there’s no doubt that the analogy with the (fictitious) behavior of the ostrich is thought provoking. I also remember being schooled in the art of powerpoint presentations by Professor Birkhead who has one numerous accolades for his talks on ornithology. If you are putting together an application for this, or indeed any other grant scheme, then some of the best advice that I can give you is to use others as a sounding board and shape your ideas in response to their feedback.
Shortlisted applicants (typically 30% of submitted proposals) are invited for interview at the ERC headquarters in Brussels and my interview was scheduled for June 2011. I cancelled my intended trip to the ‘long course weekend’ in Wales – something of a relief, as I hadn’t been looking forward to swimming 2.4 miles in cold, rough seas. Having said that, the prospect of being questioned on my proposal by (what turned out to be 18 of) Europe’s most esteemed scientists was not much more appealing. I had heard quite a bit about this process and was ready for very strict timing (I had just 10 minutes to present my proposal) and rapid fire questioning (a further 10 minutes was allocated for this). The research office in Sheffield organized two mock interviews (apparently my first went so badly, that a second was deemed to be needed) and I spent most of the spring of 2011 on sabbatical preparing. By the time that I arrived in Brussels, I could recite the presentation in my sleep and had about 25 pages of notes on possible questions that I might be asked. As is often the way with highly anticipated events, the presentation and interview went by in a flash and I have little memory of the event, with the exception of a friendly face on the panel (Professor Abrams from the University of Kent) and the chair using an alarm clock to time proceedings.
I found out in July (just over a year after initially being encouraged to apply) that my application had been successful – I had been rated 3.7 out of 4, and the proposal 3.5 out of 4. The feedback from the committee was that my publication record was “outstanding”, that I showed “excellent potential for future leadership in the field”, and that the proposal represented a “logical extension” of my previous work”, “addressed fundamental challenges at the frontiers of the field”, was “ambitious”, and went “beyond the state of the art”. There were a few concerns regarding the specifics of some studies and whether I would be able to devote sufficient time to the project (at the time of application, I had three other ongoing grants), but these concerns were seen to be surmountable. Suffice to say that I was very pleased.
After a brief, but most enjoyable celebration (centred around a trip to the ISRE Conference in Kyoto accompanied by my partner, Mel), I set about preparing the grant agreement (the legally binding contract between the University and the ERC) and recruiting the research team for which I now had funds. And here I have another piece of advice – it takes longer than you think to recruit, so do not be optimistic in setting a start date. I was so excited about starting the work that I aimed for a 1st October 2011 start date. Due to delays with advertising, recruitment, visas and so on, the two postdocs (Dr Yael Benn and Dr Betty Chang) did not start on the project until January and March 2012, respectively. On the upside, the unspent funds enable me to recruit a third postdoc (Dr Ben Harkin) who worked on the project for a short period of time before securing a Future Research Leaders grant from the ESRC, looking at similar processes (namely, avoidance of potentially useful information) among debtors.
The research has proved even more ambitious and challenging than expected and I have learned that it is easier to propose an innovative, exciting, and diverse programme of research than it is to actually carry it out and also, sadly, that there is more support for obtaining grants than for running them. One of the scientific challenges posed by the project has been keeping abreast of developments across a wide range of quite disparate literatures. The exciting thing about the ostrich problem is its ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and to offer theoretical and practical insights in a number of fields (e.g., research on relationships, environmental, and consumer behaviour). As such, I was ambitious in proposing studies outside my primary areas of expertise. However, detailed literature searches during the course of the project have, at times, identified studies that are similar to those originally proposed. For example, when developing a self-report measure of the extent to which people monitor their goal progress, we discovered that the ‘Goal Self-Assessment Battery’ developed by Karoly and Ruehlman (1995) includes measures of the extent to which people monitor their goal progress. Similarly, we found work on empathic accuracy (e.g., Ickes, Dugosh, Simpson, & Wilson, 2003), which shows that there are situations when people are motivated to avoid cues to infidelity (something that I originally proposed to study). The fast pace of research in many of these fields has also meant that other scientists have since conducted studies similar to those that I proposed when I wrote the original grant back in 2010. For example, Adriaanse, De Ridder, and Voorneman (2013) report a study using mental contrasting to improve diabetes self-management and Logel and Cohen (2012) have used self-affirmation as an intervention to promote weight loss. In a sense this is reassuring – many of the ideas in the original proposal were good ones that have already generated empirical research and publications – however, it has meant that we have had to rethink some of the empirical studies.
What has the grant from the ERC done for my career? It has helped me to put together and maintain a research team and, as such, to make the transition to an independent researcher. We have had the time, funds, and resources to conduct a substantive programme of work and attend conferences, including organizing symposia at the EASP conference in 2014 and the APS conference in 2015. If you are interested in reading about some of this work, see Benn, Webb, Chang, Sun, Wilkinson, and Farrow (2014), Harkin et al. (in press), and Webb, Benn, and Chang (2014). Links are available from the project website. As you can see, the grant has also afforded the opportunity to increase output – I’ve gone from publishing around three papers per annum in the few years before the grant, to around ten papers per annum over the last three years. Our current work focuses on the psychological impact of self-weighing (e.g., Benn, Webb, & Chang, 2015) and the effects of learning about others progress – a project that is being led by a new member of the team – Dr James Reynolds – who joined the project after Dr Betty Chang took up a post at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in April.
The project has also attracted additional support: A PhD student (Harriet Baird) joined the project in September 2014, funded by the University of Sheffield. Harriet’s research focuses on the relationship between time perspective and the likelihood and nature of progress monitoring. A new collaboration with comparethemarket.com will also provide the funds to investigate the problem of inertia with respect to household finances (e.g., that people don’t switch energy providers, take out sufficient insurance and so on); the ostrich problem may well provide part of the explanation. I also understand that freud communications (the PR company working with comparethemarket) are planning to build a giant ostrich (!) to launch the “institute of inertia” (www.instituteofinertia.org), which I will chair. Thus, the grant from the ERC has built capacity in the sense of attracting additional funds to develop the ideas further.
In summary, the grant schemes offered by the ERC represent a fabulous opportunity for scientists (including social psychologists) to devote a significant period of time to studying a topic that might be considered too risky, expensive, or theoretical to be funded by other grant schemes. The funding schemes are competitive, but if you have shown potential and have an idea that is likely to provide a ‘step change’ in understanding (one of the ERC’s buzzwords), then the rewards are certainly worth the investment of time – just be prepared for a lot of hard work if you are successful!
- Adriaanse, M. A., De Ridder, D. T. D., & Voorneman, I. (2013). Improving diabetes self-management by mental contrasting. Psychology & Health, 28, 1-12.
- Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., & Chang, B. (2015, September). What is the psychological impact of self-weighing? A meta-analysis. Paper presented at the 29th Annual Conference of the European Health Psychology Society, Limassol, Cyprus.
- Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Sun, Y-H., Wilkinson, I. D., & Farrow, T. F. D. (2014). The neural basis of monitoring goal progress. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 688.
- Carver, C.S. (1974). Facilitation of physical aggression through objective self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 365-370.
- Carver, C. D., Blaney, P. H., & Scheier, M. F. (1979). Reassertion and giving up: The interactive role of self-directed attention and outcome expectancy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1859-1870.
- Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1982). Control theory: A useful conceptual framework for personality social, clinical, and health psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 111–135.
- Evans, J. M. M., Newton, R. W., Ruta, D. A., MacDonald, T. M., Stevenson, R. J., & Morris, A. D. (1999). Frequency of blood glucose monitoring in relation to glycaemic control: Observational study with diabetes database. British Medical Journal, 319, 83–86.
- Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M. T., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (in press). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin.
- Ickes, W., Dugosh, J. W., Simpson, J. A., & Wilson, C. L. (2003). Suspicious minds: The motive to acquire relationship-threatening information. Personal Relationships, 10, 1–148.
- Johnson, R. E., Chang, C-H., & Lord, R. G. (2006). Moving from cognition to behavior: What the research says. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 381–415.
- Karoly, P., & Ruehlman, L. S. (1995). Goal cognition and its clinical implications: Development and preliminary validation of four motivational assessment instruments. Assessment, 2, 113–129.
- Logel, C., & Cohen, G. L. (2012). The role of the self in physical health: Testing the effect of a values-affirmation intervention on weight loss. Psychological Science, 23, 53-55.
- Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The Control of Perception. Chicago: Aldine.
- Shankar, A, Conner, M., & Bodansky, H. J. (2007). Can the theory of planned behaviour predict maintenance of a frequently repeated behaviour? Psychology, Health & Medicine, 12, 213–24.
- Webb, T. L., Benn, Y., & Chang, B. P. I. (2014). Antecedents and consequences of monitoring domestic electricity consumption. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 228-238.
- Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2007). How do implementation intentions promote goal attainment? A test of component processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 295-302.
- Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 249-268.
- Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Mechanisms of implementation intention effects: The role of intention, self-efficacy, and accessibility of plan components. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 373-395.
- Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Benn, Y. (2013). ‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated avoidance or rejection of information about goal progress. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 794-807.