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In the spotlight: background information, news and announcements about the project Grant support in the pre-award.

Interview

Three years ago, the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS) started a local contact point where researchers who had questions about grant applications could go for advice. Now, this contact point has evolved to become a local project office where a team of four colleagues work closely with the Grant Development Office, helping researchers with all their questions about grant support. What added value does this local project office have and where do its strengths lie? And how does it cooperate with the central Grant Development Office? We talked to Felix Wittleben and Angela Noble to find out more. As a project manager, Felix was involved in setting up the project office from the start. Angela works as Senior Grant Advisor for the University-wide Grant Development Office.

Local support structure

When Angela started at the University as Grant Advisor five years ago, she realised that there was very little exchange of knowledge between the faculties and institutes on grant support, and that there were a few local project offices where researchers could go with their questions. ‘From my role, I have tried to show the organisation that a local support structure has added value for researchers. I have shown, for example, that you acquire more subsidies when you focus on a number of specific projects rather than on a lot of projects at the same time. The LIACS Management Team (Aske Plaat, Thomas Baeck and Eline Huisjes) had already taken the first steps towards starting a local project office. This resulted in the arrival of Felix. I supported the project office in its further development. Since the project office opened, the number of successful grant applications has increased massively. We should all be very proud of this result.'

Learning and growing together

Felix: ‘I had a lot of support from Angela and the Grant Development Team when I was setting up the office. They gave me a nudge in the right direction to grow the project office. I was able to go to them with all my questions, so I never felt I was in it on my own.’ Angela: ‘What makes our field of work challenging is that there is such a broad range of grant opportunities, so each question or problem is unique. There’s no course or manual that tells you how you can offer researchers the best  support. You mainly learn on the work floor and by getting advice from colleagues and working on the issues together. Sometimes, it’s enough just to know that a colleague is facing the same challenges as you.’ Felix: ‘The Grant Development Team has a lot of experience and knowledge that we can use at local level. As an example, Angela introduced me to the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA) and ARMA-NL. These networks organise workshops and conferences that bring you into contact with colleagues from the same field of work. Angela: ‘Our team tries to support the different local project offices. We can give them specific information, help with monitoring the financial landscape, organise information meetings and courses for acquiring grants and we translate the information we gain into handy factsheets and guidelines.’

Putting the researcher first

To find out what the researchers need, Felix spent a lot of time investing in building a good working relationship at the start. ‘I tried to just meet the researchers directly and talk with them whenever possible. At the coffee machine, over lunch, but also in the hallway, or by always having my office door open, so that they could come into my office at any time and talk to me about anything. That way I had the chance to explain what the project office can do for researchers and how we can help them with their concerns. Because the focus is on the questions from the researchers, I am in constant contact with them, but also have an open door policy. I am available for the researchers when they need help. Also, it’s a very direct path for the researcher. They don’t need to remember who to contact for specific issues. We invite our researcher to come to us with anything and we try to find a tailor-made solution for them. That’s not possible with a central office only. At the local project office we are able to work within the same institute-specific work culture.‘ Angela has more tips for colleagues in a similar role: ‘Give the researchers the confidence that you can take work off their hands. The project office is sometimes seen as an office where you can dump administrative jobs. Also, try not to force the relationship with the researcher, but focus on what they want and need. They’re always more open for help when a grant application has just been rejected.'

Scientific director Prof. Aske Plaat and Prof. Thomas Bäck about setting up the project office at LIACS: “Setting up an institute-level project office that supports and manages all the steps – from identifying funding opportunities to supporting our scientists in writing, handling the formal steps (pre-award), making grant agreements, and then managing and supporting the implementation side of projects (post-award) – was an amazing step forward for our institute.”

Building a Research Support Network

Angela: ‘I’m really pleased that within Leiden Research Support (LRS) we are now working with research supporters and researchers to build a Research Support Network within the University. That’s the best way for us to learn and grow together. When I first came to the University, I was amazed that there was hardly any cross-communication among the faculties and institutes. Luckily that communication has grown enormously over the past two years and more local project offices are being set up. We and the Grant Development Team now organise a meeting every two weeks with all the Grant Advisors from the whole University. That way you can share with colleagues the issues you are coming up against and ask all the questions you want. In our field of work it’s important to have a network, otherwise you’re having to deal with issues completely on your own.’

Are you interested in starting a local project office within your faculty or institute? For more information, please contact Dennis Janssen, program manager LRS.

 

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