“EU research funding is better than its reputation”
Dr Eileen Welz is one of three employees working at the EU Office of the Max Planck Institutes in the regional cluster Bavaria.
Together with her two colleagues, Eileen Welz supports researchers with their applications for EU research funds which are currently facing political turmoil.
“I’m from the northernmost corner of Franconia - so, no, of course I’m not from Bavaria,” says Dr. Eileen Welz with a wink. She can’t hide her origins; when she is speaking, she rolls her ‘r’s in the typical Franconian manner. Eileen is a chemist with a PhD in theoretical chemistry. And that is how she summarizes her subject: “All in all, theoretical chemistry is very close to physics. My PhD thesis was close to quantum physics. In quantum physics, the best research results are often those where you don’t know how they occured. As theorists we support practitioners by trying to explain the result.”
Although she still says “we” when talking about theoretical chemists, she has turned her back on an academic career. “I loved doing research, but only by about 80 percent. In research, however, you have to be there 100 percent.” She could have taken a postdoctoral position in Sweden, but decided against it well knowing how hard it was for many of her former co-students to receive funding for their work. That was also one of the reasons she started working at MPQ, she says: “I want to help other researchers find the right funding for their projects.” She picked up the qualification for the job almost on her own, while doing her PhD. She was the representative of the graduate program at the Universität Würzburg where, together with her supervising professor and his administrative assistant, she participated in call for bids.
She applied for an advertised job at the EU office of the regional cluster Bavaria that, though located at the MPQ, is responsible for helping all Max Planck Institutes in Bavaria with the acquisition of EU funding. Her task: applying for funds from the "Forschungsrahmenprogramm" meaning Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development, as the EU research budget is called. The MPQ is very successful at fundraising. The institute receives about five to ten million Euros per annum from the EU research budget. Two flagships, i.e. big joint projects of the EU, that are realised in cooperation with other research institutions, are ongoing. Furthermore, about half a dozen so-called ERC grants have been approved of in the last few years. ERC stands for European Research Council, an institution that has been funding outstanding projects in basic research and is regarded as one of the most successful funding programs of the European Union.
Eileen Welz works in a team with her colleagues Rajima Smailji and Miriam Lorenz. There are no hierarchies, and that works very well for them.
“We’re a dynamic trio,” says Eileen Welz laughing. “We haven’t been working together for very long, but so far it works really well. We’ve changed a lot and have many ideas about how we can increase our success rate for EU applications.”
An ambitious goal for an already very successful team. In 2019 alone, they raised nearly three million Euros for the MPQ from the EU framework funding program HORIZON. The following fact shows just how important expertise on funding really is when applications are issued: The probability of the application being successful increases by more than 50 percent when the application has been filed via the EU Office.
The team has divided the institutes among each other and they help them with both, applications for funding and project management. They take part in seminars and workshops on the latest calls, publish a newsletter, and organise informative events at the institutes. Furthermore, they organise seminars for junior researchers, as for example a seminar on interview techniques. “Overall, I think that young researchers still need to learn how to sell themselves more effectively. Often I say ‘hey, you’ve done great things, you should include that in your application’”.
Sometimes she even supports researchers who want to apply elsewhere. “It may sound like a paradox that we help good employees to leave the MPQ. However, we do it because the MPQ regards it as its responsibility to open up career opportunities within the research community. And in the end, we profit from it, too. For example, when someone leaves after a doctoral thesis, and then returns after a couple of years to the MPQ as a senior researcher with a lot more experience.” Still, Eileen Welz always feels a bit sad when one of the young researchers she has supported moves on: “It is part of academic life, and it’s great when they have a career. But still, those goodbyes are always a bit emotional.”
When Eileen Welz started at MPQ, EU funding was new territory for her:
“Until then I had only dealt with funding programs of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and I have to say, the EU research funding is better than its reputation. At least the programs are more coherent and transparent than our national ones”, she says.
More complicated and therefore often a deterrent to universities, however, is the project management of the EU-funded projects.
Eileen Welz moved to Munich together with her boyfriend, who is a chemist like herself and has a job in the Bavarian capital. The couple not only shares an apartment, but also a hobby, playing beach volleyball. They take part in competitions as a mixed double. She also plays on the women’s team of FTM Schwabing in the Bavarian League. With her 5’ 9 she is exceptionally small for the sport: “I make up for that with my jumping ability,” she says and starts laughing.
Eileen Welz is a family person. Whenever she finds the time besides her work and sports, she returns to her home, Maroldsweisach, a community about equally distant from Bamberg, Coburg, and Schweinfurt. Her parents still live there, and also her brothers have remained in the immediate neighbourhood. Another reason for her frequent trips home are the two donkeys Lasse and Nadine that she couldn’t take with her to her Munich city apartment: “I always liked donkeys and had seen the two on the website of the animal shelter. My dad gave them to me as a surprise christmas gift.”