My recipe for a proposal

I’ve written a post on how to write a fellowship proposal, and how to prepare for the interview, before. And while that advice on how to formulate and structure your proposal is still valid, I don’t feel that it is quite helpful enough. Sure, it outlines the main parts of the proposal, and how they link to each other. But still, I see people struggling, and I have been contacted by numerous people for help. And telling people how to write a proposal is not nearly as helpful as showing them how to do it. 

But who am I to show you how to write a proposal? Well, in my previous post – that was in 2014 – I wrote that my proposals had a success rate of 30%. Since then though, whenever I led a proposal, it has been funded. (Right, so I know the current funding system is full of bias and resembles a lottery more than anything. But unless we change the system – which we have to, but that’s not what this post is about – the best we can do is write a proposal that’s as good as we can.)

Of course, the overall idea and approach need to be great and address an important problem or knowledge gap using a novel or creative approach. The proposal needs to be written in an engaging way and the science needs to be robust. But, all these ingredients need to piece together like a perfect puzzle, like a work of art. All the individual components need to link to each other beautifully in such a way that not a single word is redundant, that every sentence serves a purpose, and that no concept or method remains unexplained. You need to engage the reader from the start, keep them interested, impress them with clear pictures and diagrams, and gently hammer home the message that THIS work needs to be done RIGHT NOW by YOU using YOUR NOVEL approach.

So here’s how I do it. Here’s my recipe. (A recipe is something that you can follow to the letter, of course, but it’s also something that you can tweak. As you get more experienced, you might swap things around. Depending on the call, you might include a little bit more synthesis, or you might throw in some more methods. And clearly, there are often more sections that need to be included, such as risk or novelty. But here’s the basic recipe.)

I’m very curious what you think, and please – if you disagree, or if I missed something, let me know!

My lockdown plan

After almost a year of working from home, periodically while keeping two small children entertained and home schooled, I was at the end of my tether in December. Starting a big project and recruiting a group of new people, managing my group in Manchester, continuing to teach, Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting – keeping all the balls in the air, bending over backwards to get everything done, firefighting since March. The constant, constant pressure of everything, and not having time for anything. It had all been too much. And then, just before the Christmas holiday that I needed more than ever, we went into a full lockdown again. I was so run down, I could not go on like this. I needed a plan.

I started drawing my lockdown-life during the first lockdown

I needed a plan to make sure I would not burn myself out, to reduce the constant feeling of anxiety (triggered by constantly checking email and Twitter), and to restore the confidence that I had lost over the past months. Yes, I had lost confidence. Stuck at my computer in sweat pants, wiping bums while on Zoom calls, I felt like I did when I was on maternity leave: reduced to a mum, and nothing but a mum. And of course, the people on the other side of my screen were all still professional, and able to think coherently, and in control of their work, and their lives. Or so I thought. Continue reading

Are women with kids struggling more under lockdown?

Let’s be clear about this: a lot of people are struggling during these trying times, and for a variety of reasons. Many people worry about the health and wellbeing of themselves or their loved ones, about keeping their jobs, and about paying their bills.

I have a permanent position in academia, which means that I am in the very fortunate position of not having to worry about losing my job. Universities might be hit in the long term, but there are little immediate consequences of the corona crisis for their economic viability.

But academia is infamous for its high workload. A recent survey under Dutch academics indicated that they work on average 36% more than their contractual hours a week. It’s also known for its persistent bias against women. Only 23% of Dutch full professors are female (not to speak of women of colour!). In addition, there is a motherhood penalty: women who have children are disadvantaged in their career even more than those that don’t have children, while men that have children are not disadvantaged at all. Continue reading

Dé Nederlandse NO2 kleurplaat

Je zou het bijna vergeten in de wereldwijde coronavirus crisis: we hebben in Nederland ook nog een stikstofprobleem. De coronavirus crisis heeft de uitstoot van NOx (NO en NO2), vooral afkomstig van verkeer en industrie, flink verminderd. Dit betekent schonere luchten en minder stikstofdepositie.

Maar hoe ziet die NO2 uitstoot er normaal gesproken ook alweer uit?

Daarom, juist nu, voor iedereen die wel wat afleiding kan gebruiken: de Nederlandse NO2 kleurplaat. Gemaakt door UvA-studenten Evy de Nijs en Emma Polman, op basis van RIVM data.


Download ‘m, en geef de verschillende nummers, die de verschillende categorieën van atmosferische NO2-concentraties aangeven, een kleur. Als je ‘m af hebt kun je duidelijk zien hoe normaalgesproken de NO2-concentraties over Nederland verdeeld zijn. Wat valt je op?

Why are Dutch farmers and builders angry and why have I started tweeting in Dutch? The Dutch nitrogen crisis.

You might have seen it in the news: Dutch farmers ravaging cities with their tractors. But this week also builders, contractors, dredgers, and gardeners have protested in The Hague, where our government is based. They are angry, because a lot of their activities and projects have been halted, and farmers in the vicinity of protected natural (Natura 2000) areas might have to move or be bought out.

Why? Because of the Programma Aanpak Stikstof (PAS), a programme designed to reduce nitrogen deposition in Natura 2000 (a European network of protected natural areas) areas while still allowing economic growth and development. Cleverly, this programme allowed nitrogen-emitting activities in the vicinity of these areas if there were planned compensating measures to reduce future emissions, as well as future measures to reduce the degradation of Natura 2000 areas. So, essentially, taking a mortgage on future compensating measures. But on the 29thof May 2019, the Council of State judged that the PAS could no longer be used to allow nitrogen-emitting activities, because this is challenging European law.

So now, according to some people, The Netherlands is in lock-down. Building projects have been halted, and Dutch livestock numbers need to be reduced. Of course it is understandable that builders and farmers are upset; they are just trying to protect their livelihood. Continue reading

Maar in Nederland hebben vrouwen toch al láng gelijke kansen?

Ik heb veel nagedacht over de reacties deze week op het bericht dat de TU Eindhoven alle vacatures een half jaar lang alleen maar voor vrouwen openstelt. Die reacties zijn grofweg onder te verdelen in drie types:

  1. De witte mannen die dit discriminatie vinden. “Je moet gewoon de beste kandidaat aannemen, wat er tussen je benen zit doet er niet toe”, en “Dus we moeten discriminatie oplossen met discriminatie?”, tot “Dit is ook gewoon discriminatie voor vrouwen”
  2. De vrouwen die geen ‘excuustruus’ willen zijn. “Ja maar, je wilt toch niet aangenomen worden als tweede keus?!” Dit argument hoor ik ook vaak bij mannen, die bezorgd zijn over deze vrouwen die als tweede keus aangenomen worden, en zelf nóóóit zo aangenomen zouden willen worden.

Linda Duits heeft over deze reacties al een zeer sterk artikel geschreven in Folia. Kort samengevat: in de wetenschap moeten vrouwen bijna tweemaal zo hard werken als mannen voor dezelfde baan of hetzelfde salaris, vanwege allerlei structurele (maar grotendeels impliciete) obstakels. Ik zal hier nog een aantal concrete, recente voorbeelden geven:

Dit is slechts een greep uit de lange lijst van voorbeelden waaruit blijkt dat de wetenschap, nog steeds, een zelf-instandhoudend mannenbolwerk is. Continue reading

Do we need quota for men in science?

Last week, I spoke at the L’Oreal Foundation’s breakfast debate curated by the New York Times. This was an Oxford Style debate, with two teams of three – one of the teams argued against, and one of the teams argued for the motion “This house believes that there should be quota for men in science”. I was on Team For, together with Stephen Frost and Marina Kvaskoff; Kaisa Snellman, Emma Liu and Rose Mutiso were Team Against.

It was a fantastic and empowering event (and I got to go to Paris, wear nice clothes, and eat nice food). The purpose of the debate was not so much the debate itself, but rather keeping this conversation going and coming up with creative solutions of how to increase the representation of women in science – something we all agreed on is necessary. Continue reading

An extremely dry summer in Manchester

Right at the end of the extremely dry period we had this summer I decided to do a little experiment: I started taking a photo of the patch of grass in my street in Manchester, in the North West of England, every couple of days. I study the effects of drought on ecosystems (see my previous posts about the effects of drought belowground here and here) and I thought it would be nice to show how the grass in my street would bounce back after the rain had started.

Only… it didn’t. The rain did not come as intensely as I expected, and the grass did not bounce back as quickly as I expected. The first (top left) photo was taken on the 12thof July, the last (bottom right) on the 20thof August. And still you can see bare soil and brown patches! This patch of grass would look a lot lusher and greener during a normal Manchester summer.

Manchester grass

The grass in my street in Manchester this summer. 

But, more importantly, while aboveground plant growth seems mostly recovered, the composition of the community has changed (which you can’t see in these photos), and as I’ve shown in my research, this might continue to affect belowground communities and the processes they perform.

Of course, this little patch of grass in Manchester is not that important for the functioning of our ecosystems. But it is a nice illustration of the impacts of an extremely dry summer on grassland and how long it takes for these fast-growing plants to regain their biomass!

What is the current weather doing to our soils?

There has been plenty of media coverage of the current extremely hot and dry weather. The drought is revealing archaeological features, (see also here), and we can even see the browning of our landscape from space. But this drought is not good news for our ecosystems at all, and one example of that are the recent wildfires in the Peak District. These fires are not just bad news for the plants and animals that live there, but also they make large amounts of carbon that have been sequestered over many years go up in the air as CO2, and this can amplify climate change. Drought also affects our ecosystems more subtly than that, but the long-term consequences might be as severe.

We can all see the effect the drought is having on plants: lawns are turning yellow, corn leaves are rolling, and in extreme cases, trees even lose their leaves. They become inactive, and can even die. This is not just bad news for the plants, it is also bad news for the soil. When plants stop growing, they are not photosynthesing, and when they are not photosynthesising, they are not removing CO2from the atmosphere. A large part of this photosynthesised COgoes straight into the soil to fuel the activities of microbes, which carry out important functions such as the decomposition of plant litter and the release of nutrients for plant growth. Continue reading

Your child might choke

When I read this column on the Dutch newspaper NRC’s website, I felt this was so accurate and recognisable that it deserved a translation into English. When I said this in a tweet, author and microbiologist Rosanne Hertzberger responded that she would love a translation. So, here you go:

We bought an inflatable paddling pool for our eldest. It’s a miracle he survived. On the blue plastic warnings were printed in 27 different languages. ‘Without adult supervision, your child’s life is in danger’ and ‘Children have drowned in portable swimming pools’. This is the tone manufacturers use when talking to parents. ‘Just use some common sense’ isn’t cutting it anymore. Similar to images of cancerous lungs being printed on cigarette packs, paddling pools are covered in obituaries of drowned children. There were other warnings printed on the pool: children might swallow small parts. And older children might get paralysed if they decide to dive into the 7-inch-deep pool. ‘Inflate your fun’ was the product slogan. Continue reading