[Translate to Englisch:] Portraitzeichnung Prof. Fauser und Prof. Geyer in Schwarz-Weiß
“Challenging and very competitive”

„Anspruchsvoll und sehr kompetitiv“

The first German Research Foundation (DFG) project at h_da started in 2010. Probably the best known from this initial phase was the “Editions- und Forschungsstelle Frank Wedekind” (EFW), a research group dedicated to the work of this famous German author. Since then, further DFG projects from various disciplines have been continuously added. At present, the thematic spectrum ranges from sociology to statistics and cyber security to mechanical engineering. In this campus_d interview, Professor Dirk Geyer from the Faculty of Mechanical and Plastics Engineering and Professor Margit Fauser from the Faculty of Social Work report on their experiences and strategies.

An interview by Christina Janssen, 24.3.2022

impact: The German Research Foundation is regarded as the “Premier League” of research funding. How difficult is it to get a proposal approved?

Fauser: We belong, so to speak, to the lucky ones who made it, so it’s hard to say. But you can tell from the approval rate, of course, which is around 20 to 25 percent. That shows how challenging and very competitive it is.

Geyer: The even more challenging question is: How difficult is it to write a proposal? For a DFG proposal, you need a well thought-through strategy, that is, a really good research question and a good story to go with it.

impact: It’s interesting that you talk of a “story”…

Geyer: Yes, that’s the first hurdle: Do I have a scientific open question, and can I plausibly present how I want to address it?

Fauser: And am I the right person for it. Many DFG funding lines are very person-oriented, where CV and list of publications count. It’s nice to have an idea, but you must also be able to “sell” to the DFG that you’re capable of working on it – both in terms of the topic and as a scientific personality.

impact: Can you tell us your current DFG story in five sentences?

Fauser: We’re dealing with local actors in border management. How are borders drawn not only at national frontiers but also in our cities? Authorities, but also welfare organisations and NGOs play a role here, for example where questions of family reunification, visa applications, deportation or access to healthcare and social services are concerned. In many cases, these things are linked to residence status, thus shifting external borders into the cities. This is what we’re looking at in our current DFG project. (=> Box “The Border Crosser”)

impact: And your story, Professor Geyer?

Geyer: My overall topic is chemical storage media for renewable energies. In the future, we’ll need to be able to transport these energies over long distances and store them. At the end of the day, chemical energy storage is the only large-scale option here. That can be hydrogen, it can be iron or else methanol, that is, very different types of fuel. In our current DFG projects, we’re dealing with the thermochemical conversion of such fuels, using sophisticated laser and camera technology to study combustion processes. (see Boxes “Burning Interest”)

impact: Professor Geyer, how many DFG projects have you had so far?

Geyer: Three.

impact: And two are currently ongoing.

Geyer: They will end soon. I got slapped with one in December, unfortunately a big one, another one is currently being reviewed, and right now I’m writing a proposal. Enough time to write proposals is the limiting factor. Sure, my colleagues at h_da keep telling me ‘You’ve got your doctoral students to write proposals’. But that’s not true. Above all for DFG proposals, you’re obliged to sit down and do it yourself. You need a few years in science to be able to write something like that.

Fauser: And there is also a difference compared to traditional universities, which as a rule have more human resources than universities of applied sciences. There, I’ve not only got doctoral students but postdocs as well.

impact: What else is important?

Fauser: What’s very important is networking within the scientific community. Knowing the reviewers personally is perhaps not imperative, but you should already have made a name for yourself in the research community and be known to the reviewers.

Geyer: Besides that, I wouldn’t recommend submitting a DFG proposal as your first one. Practising on “simpler” formats first – for example “Research for Practice” in Hesse or Federal Ministry of Education and Research programmes – is at any rate helpful. Then you already have something to show the DFG later on.

impact: So for the record: You need a good story, it’s essential that you write the proposal yourself, and don’t start with the DFG straight away. What else can you recommend to your colleagues?

Geyer: Starting small is in any case a good strategy, for example with small student projects that can perhaps generate publications. Via these publications, you can then move on to your first proposals or larger projects and in this way build up your profile from the bottom up. The second point: my work is highly interdisciplinary, for example I work with the optotechnicians, chemists and mathematicians at our university. This allows me to establish a broader scientific base for myself and to integrate different skills into my project. I think it’s very, very important to foster this interdisciplinarity and that the faculties see beyond the end of their noses. A closed-shop mentality is not something that encourages research, it's rather more a hindrance.

Fauser: I would second that. You need a research strategy, and you need it categorically, not just for DFG proposals. You have to think about how to develop a topic, how to build it up. As far as a closed-shop mentality in some faculties is concerned, I can only say that my own faculty, Social Work, is already very interdisciplinary. There, too, I can but agree with Professor Geyer.

Geyer: Another approach can be to link teaching and research. That helps me on the one hand to shoulder my large teaching load, and at the same time I can impart much more topical content to my students. There’s no need to recount knowledge that’s 30 years old.

Fauser: And research modules as part of the curriculum are naturally also important for this. In our faculty, these are empirical modules. This could be further expanded when developing curricula. In my opinion, that’s important for tying in with current debates and giving topics new impetus.

Geyer: I also find that very important. And if you then see the DFG as the “summit” of this whole development, you’re obliged to climb the mountain. This includes – like a kind of crampon – linking research and teaching.

impact: To continue with the same metaphor: Is the path to the summit particularly steep for professors at universities of applied sciences?

Fauser: Yes, I believe it is – for very different reasons. The teaching load is one reason, and a person’s CV might possibly be another: many colleagues have worked in practice for a long time before coming to a university of applied sciences and were no longer active in research. Then you’re unable to produce a corresponding list of publications. If you’ve been away for years, it’s hard to catch up.

Geyer: I indeed stayed in contact during my time in industry and continued to publish, but of course not on the same scale as before. It then took me a while here at h_da to get back to the required level. In the first years, the ideas didn’t come to me as easily as they do now.

Fauser: This also applies to how you present yourself to reviewers. If you haven’t published anything for five or ten years, if you can’t show that you took part in the debate, then you’re out.

impact: How does the DFG look at universities of applied sciences in general, are there any reservations?

Geyer: I would say that the way you’re perceived is person-related. That’s at any rate how I experience it among my colleagues. People don’t make derogatory remarks about universities of applied sciences, I feel very accepted in the community. Apart from which, there is political pressure to include universities of applied sciences.

Fauser: No one presumably says ‘Oh, they’re from a university of applied sciences, they’re bound to fail’. But at the same time, of course, there is no bonus. No one sympathises about 18 hours of teaching a week.

Geyer: Definitely not.

impact: In your view, does DFG funding have advantages over other sources of funding?

Geyer: The DFG is one of my favourite funding organisations. Once you’ve got your DFG project, you in principle have total freedom to work on it. This scientific freedom is greater than in all other projects. You can try out ideas and really conduct research. And if you notice that something isn’t working out as planned, you can change direction. You have an entirely free hand.

impact: Professor Fauser, is that your experience too?

Fauser: Yes, definitely. Of course, it’s important to do something meaningful with the money and to publish the results. But if the research process needs some adjustment, and that’s always the case, you’re free to decide how and what. That also applies to the budget. In the past, for example, it wasn’t possible to convert funds for materials into funds for personnel. That’s no longer a problem. In my current project, we were unable to action certain things due to the pandemic – for example, face-to-face interviews in Spain or field research there, so we’re going to apply for a cost-neutral extension that will probably go through.

impact: What support is available here at h_da for submitting proposals and during the course of a project?

Fauser: Colleagues at the “Service Center Research and Transfer” (SFT) are on hand to advise us during the proposal phase. And we’re relieved of a lot of arduous bureaucracy during the project itself. In addition, my team has been given a room at the Center for Research and Development (ZFE) / House of Research. That’s really great.

Geyer: We really do get a lot of administrative assistance: the SFT handles the organisational side very competently, for example draw downs. In addition, up until now it was possible to get start-up funding of €5,000 from the university. In my view, it would be very important that this possibility continues.

Fauser: It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a good way to kick-start proposals. Before I came to h_da, I received such a grant when I was at the University of Bielefeld and used it to recruit assistants who helped me with a preliminary study. I then published an essay and so already had a reference. That was really important.

impact: So that brings us to the category “wish list”...

Geyer (laughs): My wish list is very long.

impact: Then please reveal the top five things on it.

Geyer: I would like to see more merging of teaching and research. In addition, we’re just starting to build up the group of mid-level academic staff. Establishing continuity in the number of doctoral students through this initiative is naturally also one of my wishes. I would like to have rooms for doctoral students in Building C10 so that they’re closer to the laboratories, which we want to extensively modernise, and don’t have to walk from the Center for Research and Development (ZFE) / House of Research to the lab. The next thing would be to boost interdisciplinary research structures, network with colleagues across faculties and have appropriate funding for this. But naturally that all costs money.

impact: Back to the here and now: What are you planning for this year as far as the DFG is concerned?

Fauser: The next thing we’ll do is tackle the field research in Spain, which has been put on hold so far due to the pandemic. And then I want to start a new project on transnational labour mobility, that is, on highly mobile, cross-border forms of work and their legal basis.

Geyer: We’ve got two priorities. One is the further development of laser diagnostics in our laboratories. The second is research into new fuels such as ammonia or methanol. We’re also thinking about a hydrogen project. So there are four to five projects in the pipeline, but we also need time to work on them all.

impact: We’ll keep our fingers crossed!

Contact details

Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112
E-Mail: christina.janssen@h-da.de


Contact details SFT

Dr. phil. Jeanine Dörr
Phone: +49.6151.16-30036
Mail: jeanine.doerr@h-da.de
Holzhofallee 36 b
Building D22, Room 00.12