You might think that Kok and Rietveld both spent last week in a state of euphoria, but you’d be wrong. In actual fact, they experienced the euphoria quite a while ago. Both academics received the good news ‘some time in July’, although they were not allowed to talk about it. Rietveld, who is affiliated with the Erasmus School of Economics, says: “I was brushing my teeth when I received an e-mail from the ERC saying that the grant award decisions had been posted on their portal.” Kok had a very similar experience. “You do get a little nervous when you receive a message like that, so then of course you’ll run into some computer trouble first.” However, both Kok and Rietveld were among the lucky 13% whose grant applications had been honoured.

If you are awarded an ERC grant, the impact on your research project will be huge. Kok and Rietveld will be able to spend the next five years working on their own research projects. They will be able to work with two PhD students, one postdoc and several teaching assistants.

Rianne Kok, who works at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, is conducting research on the lies parents tell their children and their impact on children’s development. She is the first researcher affiliated with ESSB’s Department of Psychology, Education and Child Studies (DPECS) to be awarded the prestigious grant. And this was not the first time she was awarded a grant, either: she previously successfully applied for a Sophia Foundation grant in 2011, an EUR Fellowship grant in 2016 and an Erasmus Initiative grant in 2017.

The child-rearing paradox

rianne kok op ipad
Rianne Kok

Kok conducts research on the lies parents tell their children. In addition, her research project is the first to focus on a paradox that occurs in child-rearing situations: some parents teach their children not to lie, but do tell lies themselves. “So far, very little research has been conducted on this subject. We are not quite sure yet what impact lies have on children’s development. There is a lot of talk about it on Internet forums. Some say you should never lie to a child, while others say it’s inevitable. But as a scientist, I’m currently unable to come up with an evidence-based recommendation,” says Kok.

As for Rietveld, after he had deciphered the message in the ERC’s portal, he was ‘absolutely elated’. However, due to the coronavirus crisis, he was unable to properly celebrate his success. “We had a nice meal that evening.”

Nevertheless, Rietveld says he has mixed feelings. “On the one hand I was thinking, yes, I got what I wanted. And on the other I was thinking, wait, now I’m actually going to have to do all the things I wrote about in the application.”

Heredity and level of education

niels rietveld
Niels Rietveld

Rietveld’s research focuses on the correlation between social indicators and heredity. He and his co-authors are the first scientists who were able to identify genetic variants that are related to a person’s level of education. “I want to determine how useful these kinds of heredity studies are in terms of policy-making. Many people will tell you they are not useful at all, but I beg to differ. If I can demonstrate that there is a correlation, this may have a significant bearing on society, for instance in terms of policies designed to reduce social inequality.”

Like Kok, Rietveld had been successful in earlier grant applications. For instance, in 2015 he was awarded a Veni grant, and in 2016 he won Erasmus University’s Research Prize and Young Researcher Award. Despite the fact that most grants come with low award rates, Rietveld does not seem to have any problem netting grants. So what is his secret? “I don’t think I have a secret. Maybe people are simply intrigued by the field I’m researching. And what also helped was the fact that I was on NWO’s Veni grant award committee last year, which gave me an insight into how things are done behind the scenes.”

‘Don’t be afraid to open yourself to criticism’

So, do Rietveld and Kok have any tips for colleagues of theirs who may be applying for a grant for the first time?

“Those committees must be able to justify giving you money,” Rietveld says. “Make sure they don’t have to look for those answers. Why should they award money to this study, why should they do so now, and why should they give it to you?”

Kok’s tip is to get others involved in the writing of your application at an early stage. “I made a conscious decision to get other people’s input right from the start. Where do others feel you are doing a good job, and what isn’t coming across so well? So basically, you’re opening yourself to criticism, but it does help a lot. You’ll learn quickly whether you’re on the right track or whether there is a better way to phrase things.”

Rietveld has another tip as well: “Using many bolded words and images helps too,” he says with a smile.