When deciding on the eligibility of project applications, strict formal and technical specifications play a role, and the projects are also subjected to careful examination by experts. However, it is sometimes difficult for exceptionally creative research projects to survive this selection process because their full potential is not always perceived. In order to give such hidden pearls an equal chance, the Volkswagen Foundation is taking a new path. Part of the funding available will be decided on the basis of a lottery. What is the background to this experiment and what experiences has the Foundation made with it so far?
Requirements for Applicants are Diverse
Science funding organizations place very different demands on their applicants. For example, some of them focus more on projects with an interdisciplinary focus, international cooperation or, as in the case of the Volkswagen Foundation, researchers who explore or want to explore research fields beyond the mainstream. In its "Experiment!" funding initiative, the Foundation invites applicants to submit proposals that pursue bold research ideas that fundamentally challenge established knowledge, that seek to establish unconventional hypotheses, methods, or technologies, or explore entirely new directions of research.
Anonymized applications give everyone the same opportunities.
Although the funding amount of 120,000 euro and the funding period of up to 18 months may appear rather "small" compared to the Foundation’s other initiatives, the application requirements are comparatively low-threshold. On the one hand, a short outline application with a maximum of a thousand words is sufficient. On the other hand, the selection is done anonymously so that unknown early-career researchers have just as great an opportunity as established researchers – possible personal connections to the reviewers or knowledge about preparatory work done by the applicants have no influence on the selection itself.
These criteria leave a lot of scope for applicants. The unusual offer means that totally extraordinary or at first glance even outlandish ideas also have a chance. The result has been that the Foundation received several hundred proposals by each of the five deadlines so far – peaking at 704. Selecting 15 to 20 applications from such a large number, i.e. only around two to three percent which can eventually be funded, confronts the Foundation and the jury with an enormous challenge – not only in terms of time and personnel, but also in terms of content.