The Volkswagen Foundation: Pioneering Research – Exploring the Unknown Unknown

  • Action type: Visionary projects from the field of basic research
  • Opening date: 1 January 2023
  • Closing time: 31 December 2023 23:59 (Europe/Brussels)
  • Budget per project: € 500 000
  • Project duration: 3 years
  • Official website


With the program “Pioneering Research – Exploring the Unknown Unknown”, the Foundation supports groundbreaking and risky research ideas with high scientific relevance. They are looking for basic research projects that are not dedicated to the already ‘known unknown’, but that strive to explore the ‘unknown unknown’ thereby holding the potential for major scientific breakthroughs, but also for failure.

What is funded?

Pioneering research projects must meet the following criteria: 

  • Exploratory quality of the project: Your project is radically exploratory and breaks new scientific ground. There should be no publications on your specific research topic yet.
  • Scientific relevance and potential for new insights: Your project addresses an unexplored scientific challenge and, if successful, it will provide fundamental new impetus to the community. Projects that are primarily application-related are not funded.
  • Qualification and motivation: You devote yourself to new scientific challenges with passion and a willingness to take risks and are outstandingly qualified with regard to the feasibility and implementation of the project. 

The funding program addresses outstanding researchers from all disciplines and is open to various funding formats. In addition, it is deliberately broadly positioned and flexibly designed – Whether a project is funded will be assessed in a two-stage selection process. 

The following projects cannot be funded:

  • Research projects that promise only an incremental gain in knowledge in an already existing research field.
  • Pure doctoral projects. Under certain conditions, you can apply for doctoral positions. These would have to be explicitly explained against the background of the risk character of the projects. In addition, it must be ensured that the doctoral project can be carried out successfully even if the research project fails. 
  • Projects that overlap with (large) thematic programs of the foundation.

Grants can only be awarded to universities or scientific institutions in Germany (post-doctoral researchers and professors at German universities and research institutes), but int. cooperation partners are possible. Also, applicants from institutions that are not eligible for funding can be involved in a project as cooperation partners.



Lead applicants must be affiliated with a German university or research institution or attach a statement with their application in which the management of the university or research group confirms that it will employ them and take over the administration of the third-party funds if they are approved.
  • Submission of draft proposals at any time
  • Submission of full proposals after invitation

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