How to find the excellent idea for a research project

Tuesday 14 Dec 21


Kirsten Thomsen
Head of Research Secretariat
DTU Aqua
+45 35 88 33 79
Research applications are hard work. But of course they are also worth it all when they go through. But it requires the good idea - how do you find it? Researchers on the autumn course in idea development went on the quest for the good research idea.

“I found that the course helped me to position my idea within the framework of excellence. It helped me to spotlight the fundamental scientific challenges and interests as opposed to the much more applied science interests I ordinarily work with."

This is what Elliot Brown says. He is a researcher at DTU Aqua and has just participated in the course "How to develop ideas for excellence projects".

"Even established scientists must try and try again."
scientist Elliot Brown

A course offered by the Research Secretariat in the wake of their experience with helping scientists formulate the good scientific idea - an exercise not straightforward despite solid and promising research. When the secretariat assists scientists in writing applications to fund their projects, the idea is often something that really needs to be worked on:

"Typically, a researcher knows what they want to investigate and how, but have not communicated what the scientific goal is," says Kirsten Thomsen, who heads the Research Secretariat and elaborates:

“Showing that you want to contribute to science with new insights or methods is important in all types of applications, but especially when you apply for basic science projects at e.g. the Research Council or the ERC is absolutely crucial." 

High risk - high gain

Eight researchers from DTU Aqua participated in the two course days in the autumn, which first took place outside the usual framework in the Nature Room in Tisvilde. Then back to DTU. Idea development was the key word, and the participants had the opportunity to present the project idea they had come up with.

Elliot Brown's project idea stems from his work using the signatures imprinted in the hard bone structures in the fish's ears to categorize the types of habitats that the fish have lived in throughout their lives:

“At the moment, we can use these tools coarsely, to determine if individual fish grew-up in rough geographic areas,. but my project proposes to use this method to determine in which specific habitat type they grew up, e.g. around eelgrass, around algal reefs, or on plain soft-sediments.”

"If possible, these methods can help identify the habitat types that are essential to support the life-cycle and hence the production of the fish species we rely on for food," says Elliot Brown.

 Another participant who contributed to the course with his project idea is senior researcher Morten Schiøtt. He works with methods that can increase the disease resistance of useful, invertebrates that are used as food or for plant pollination or for the development of methods for controlling pests:

"In my project, I will test and further develop a recently put forward hypothesis that invertebrates are able to store information about viruses they become infected with, in the form of circular DNA molecules that match the sequence of the invading virus' genes. By transcribing the circular DNA molecules, the cell can subsequently neutralize RNA molecules from invading viruses by means of RNA interference and thus gain immunity. ”

Morten Schiøtt already had the special angle of his research from home, he says, but what inspired him on the idea development course was the message to think big:
"The idea of thinking 'high risk - high gain' is important. It obviously requires that the opportunity to implement is high. 'Backtracking' is also something I take home."

"Ie. the method where one starts by imagining what the end product should end up with and then goes backwards to find all the steps that need to be taken to reach the goal. This makes it easier to identify the actual scientific challenges in the project and focus on solving the problems, ”says Morten Schiøtt.

Idea development versus excellence

Bettina Hauge from DTU Research has developed and facilitated the course in idea development. The first of its kind, so what did the scientists who participated get out of it?

"Even established scientists must try and try again with these highly contested excellence based calls," concludes Elliot Brown.

What could make the course even better? Here Elliot Brown calls for examples:

"More concrete activities on dissecting a call to identify excellence components and crafting our ideas to specific calls."

Morten Schiøtt points to the course structure:

"The course would probably benefit from being spread over a few more days, so there was more time for the participants to work with the relevant tools to develop their ideas," says Morten Schiøtt.

From the Research Secretariat, which offered the course, it reads:

If we offer a similar course again, we might try to focus more on the general research idea development and less on the "concept of excellence" so that it does not stand in the way of idea development. If you have made the preparations to develop a good and innovative research idea, then you should probably also make a good application afterwards, ”concludes Kirsten Thomsen.

Photos by Anne Trap-Lind