The outlines of the reforms of the support programmes for fellowships and fundamental projects of the FWO have been approved. An overview of the major changes
In autumn 2016, the Board of Trustees of the FWO launched an exercise to reform the evaluation procedure of the fundamental financing channels for fellowships and projects. Such an exercise goes to the heart of the FWO and the Board was therefore fully aware that this had to be approached with the necessary ambition and prudence. From the outset, stakeholders were actively involved in the drafting of the plans. Each step in the reform process was assessed, on the one hand, through a large-scale stakeholder dialogue with, amongst others, FWO panel members, representatives of the (Young) Academy and the policy bodies of the Flemish host institutions at the end of October 2016 and, on the other hand, through targeted sessions with representatives of “Researchers for a Stronger FWO". The result is a powerful and well-supported reform that provides the Flemish research community with maximum opportunities for further development.
The central objective is to select and optimally support the most excellent researchers. A second starting point of this reform is that the FWO intends to preserve the researcher friendliness for which it has always been known. This means transparent and efficient procedures whereby the administrative burden for researchers and applicants is kept to a strict minimum. This aspect is reflected in concise applications based on clear online forms, followed by a quick evaluation in line with international best practices, and in high-quality feedback for the benefit of researchers.
The optimisation of the application flow and pressure should prevent researchers from becoming discouraged in trying their chances with the FWO. This is inextricably linked with a persistent appeal for more resources from the Flemish government for the fundamental channels of the FWO, so that all the excellent non-oriented research also has a realistic chance of being financed. These extra resources are actually forthcoming, via a first annual envelope of €30 million additional resources for the FWO budget. In addition to dealing with the increasing application pressure and limited chances of success, problem-oriented solutions had to be found for specific bottlenecks such as potential conflicts of interest among panel members, unequal competition between applicants, an appropriate evaluation of applicants and their projects, more bench fees for postdoctoral researchers, etc.
The reforms that eventually emerged are summarised below. During the coming months, everything will be rolled out in modified regulations and procedures. We will inform you of every step and modification through info sessions, the FWO website and the electronic newsletter. The FWO is currently finalising a number of transition measures that will accompany the reforms as they will be rolled out from the 2018-2019 calls.
PhD, SB grant and postdoctoral fellowships
Under the new regulations, maximum two application attempts for the same fellowship can be made and for the predoctoral fellowships, be it a PhD or an SB grant, maximum 1 application per round can be submitted.
Candidates for a fellowship should have obtained their master's degree or doctoral degree no longer than three years ago. For pre-docs the scientific seniority may not exceed 18 months.
Renewal of the postdoctoral fellowship (second term) will be replaced by a senior postdoctoral fellowship. This channel is open to anyone with maximum 6 years of postdoctoral seniority, maximum 4 years of postdoctoral research experience and minimum 2 years of prior financing as postdoc. You will therefore no longer be required to have completed a first term as postdoctoral researcher of the FWO in order to submit an application. Postdoctoral researchers can also receive a higher bench fee if they can demonstrate that it is necessary for their research. This flexible bench fee replaces the Research Grant, which will be abolished.
All candidate fellows will be evaluated in two steps: after a pre-selection, a number of candidates, representing 200% of the number of fellowships to be financed, move onto a second round with an interview by the expert panel. The application and evaluation procedure for fellowships will in any case be organised so as to avoid any gap between the time of graduation and the start of the fellowship. In planning the interviews, the FWO will also take into account the examination period to make the procedure as practicable as possible for the applicants.
Fundamental research projects are split up into the categories 'junior' and 'senior'. In this way, the FWO seeks to create more equal competition and opportunities for young academics and new research topics. Both types will have equal chances of success and the eligibility criteria for supervisors of applications in both channels will also be identical. The crucial difference lies in the different definitions of a supervisor (or PI): junior PIs are understood to be those supervisors who have obtained their doctoral degree no longer than 12 years ago.
For all project applications maximum two applications per round and per supervisor and co-supervisor can be submitted and the total number of requested and ongoing projects per supervisor and co-supervisor will be limited to two.
The one-step procedure for projects is retained, but it will feature a rebuttal, i.e. a step that allows applicants to respond to the external review reports by clarifying or correcting one or more matters or providing additional information. This can then be taken into consideration by the panel members during the further evaluation process.
As regards the panel itself, the FWO will maintain its policy of composing panels made up primarily of international experts. Any panel members involved in an application will not be able to participate in the panel meeting for that round. The role of the panel members will be defined more clearly to ensure maximum transparency and verifiability of the evaluation process. The chair/vice-chair duo will invariably comprise one expert associated with a non-Flemish institution. The majority of the panel will also consist of experts associated with non-Flemish institutions. Specific field councils, distributed over the major scientific fields and made up of the chairs and vice-chairs of the relevant panels, will be responsible for the balanced composition of the panels.
Applicants no longer need to propose any referees themselves. This will be a task of the FWO, which, for both postdoctoral applications and project applications, will search suitable referees to evaluate the applications.
Because this is an in-depth reform, the FWO and its Board of Trustees will carefully monitor and evaluate the implementation at regular intervals, so as to amend the regulations as and when deemed necessary.