‘I’ before ‘we’

Another common mistake that I’ve seen often in the proposals I have reviewed is to give the reader the too strong an impression that this is going to be a team effort. This has two main dimensions, I think. Firstly, it is the simple acknowledgement of the fact that pretty much all mainstream science work is done in teams and in collaborations. Researchers are in the habit of writing that ‘we did’ or ‘we discovered’ this or that and carry this over in the work of writing ERC proposals. In this sense to use ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in this way is nothing much more than a tactical error which in itself is not going to be decisive but which might tip the balance as one more small distraction and negative point when the evaluator is weighing the work up and reaching a general conclusion about how it fits in the philosophy of the programme.

It is easy to deal with this simple kind of unhelpful focus on the team and the simplest way is to phase it in during the writing of the text – it is a simple presentational issue. On the first pages it is probably sensible to use ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ when speaking about the future achievements of the planned work. Phase in the use of ‘we’ when writing the latter parts of the text about how the work will be done and the plans implemented so that the work is clearly feasible and the entity is ready to run. There is nothing to be lost by leading with strong statements of the principal investigator as the driving force of the work and the person to have made the original insight that pushes it along – it is quite in keeping with the underlying idea of what the researcher’s job is in the ERC programmes.

However, a focus on the work as a team effort, or even worse the suggestion that it is a consortium action or some kind of a network, can often indicate that the work really isn’t cut out for the ERC. In the worse cases it can flag up that the work is a re-heated bid from elsewhere that someone is trying to, as the modern idiom might, unfortunately, have it ‘repurpose’ and this is always fatal and not worth trying to do. The worse case of this I have seen was a proposal that was recycled so badly that although the title had been changed the old acronym remained unchanged throughout the body of the text.

There is a clear and carefully guarded difference between the ERC programmes and the rest of the H2020 programmes – although they are clearly related to and intended to build on each other i.e., ERASMUS and Marie Curie and, logically, an StG could well lay the gournd for a future CoG, . In some areas of H2020 networks and collaborations and consortia are a prerequisite for success. But in the ERC programmes the onus is very much on the individual researcher to come up with challenging new ideas, carry them forward and to break new ground in basic research and, in the starting and consolidator calls, to use this experience and knowledge to push their careers forward.

While it is mostly unlikely that it will all be done by one person (although in some theoretical areas I have seen successful projects that are basically one person and one laptop and lots of thinking and where it isn’t always easy to use up the generous resources that are supplied) it is politic to give a very strong impression that there is a strong pioneering individual driving it along. Equally, it is the kiss of death to give even a whiff of a consortium action or a network and the ERC’s own supporting material made this clearer than ever in the latest rounds of calls which probably indicates that they are frustrated at receiving so many proposals that are not fit for purpose in this way.

In proposals that are based around ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ I also often find another negative characteristic that makes it difficult to win. The ‘team’ is often the regular collaborators in the department and beyond and the project is often a general description of their research interests and basically a request for funding to carry these on. This is a serious error to make and will be quickly picked up by evaluators.

A good ERC proposal is one that, in fact, isn’t something that could be done by the regular team of colleagues in the normal working routine – it is something distinct and often slightly at a tangent to the work of the day-to-day round of ongoing activities, it is the researcher ‘sticking their neck out’ as an individual and with a new idea.

The ERC is a chance to dream (a little, at least) and to do things that wouldn’t and couldn’t normally be attempted with colleagues you might not normally work with – it is not intended to underpin general work and shift this forward incrementally. It is a chance for the individual to step outside of everyday pressures and to win the funding to allow them to defend this pursuit of new knowledge in the department. So, it really is focused on the individual and their interests and all the writing should focus on this particular distinct piece of work with a clear start, middle and end that is clearly separate from the demands of the everyday work of the department. So, in summary, it is a question of focusing on the ‘I’ rather than the ‘we’ at least in the first phases of the description of the project and focusing on this particular distinct project that only the ERC with its unique focus on ground breaking research will enable you to do.

I am also often asked about what a good ERC team looks like. Of course, the answer depends on what kind of objectives the project has and the people that are needed to do the work to get to where the project is planning to go. I am in favour of real planning of teams and resources as if the project were taking place in a commercial environment and these issues were decisive ones. The question of budget is one that needs to be dealt with separately in later posts. Here all I will note is that the vast majority of proposals that I review ask for the maximum budget and there are a range of pressures institutional and otherwise acting on proposers to maximise the amount they ask for. On the whole, it is not clear if there is a competitive advantage to proposing lean and tightly budgeted projects in these programmes and competing on budget as a selling point for the work. Personally, I would assume that this is the case and do real resource planning with the aim of giving a competitive edge but realise researchers are not always at liberty to do this even if it crosses their mind.

However, it is like to be the case that if nearly all projects are asking for maximum budget then this must be having some impact on resource planning including the size and nature of the team which must also be staffed to use up the funding. I suspect that if, for example, every proposal was built from the bottom up without the notional maximum in mind they wouldn’t all end up with the same budget. It might also have impact on the project objectives which might be conceived and written with a maximum budget in mind, rather than, for example maximising efficiency for making high impact contributions to the field and having researchers moving on to other projects more quickly: this might actually be creating the timeframe of science in slightly artifical way. Or, perhaps it might be making the objectives more ambitious than they would be without the maximum figure in place. There is, as far as I know, no evidence that any of this is actually the case or not or, more importantly, that it matters in practice. The assumption remains when sitting down to work with a researcher is that they will sketch in the maximums in time and cash. In fact, of all the reviewers comments that I have read I can’t recall seeing one that said the budget was a problem or that the work could be bought more cheaply from somewhere else or done in a more efficient way – which might suggest that money matters are not in the foreground during the evaluation process and the idea of buying more but cheaper projects, perhaps, is not high up the policy agenda.

And it is also perfectly possible to look at it from the other way around and conclude that the ERC think that the kind of work that they are hoping to buy and the type of impacts (both for professional development of the researcher and contributions to science) they are hoping to create can be achieved in most cases by projects lasting about the maximum amount of time and having about the maximum budget at their disposal. More or less standard budgets certainly make it easier to evaluate and to manage. Or there might be no explanation of why those time and budget maximums have been put in place, or at least no detailed evidence-based rationale as to why these parameters are better at creating the desired effects than others: nevertheless, they are the rules of the game we are playing here.

So, if the proposal is aiming at maximum budget with the possible inflating effects that this has on staffing then it is critical that at the very least the team is planned and managed in accordance with the philosophy of the ERC about pioneering individual work. I think that this means that the team should have a ‘comet-like’ structure with all the members being dragged along behind the principal investigator. The core of the work, I think, needs to be done in-house or under the close control of the leader and there might be a team of 4 or 5 doctoral students or post-docs working on it (the money will soon be spent on this over the duration of the project however much it might seem at the start and in some countries much quicker than in others).

Other senior staff at the home institution or elsewhere can fill in gaps and bring specialist skills as required and this needs to be very clearly explained and justified. In particular researchers need to be cautious when working across disciplines and relying on expertise that they really don’t have or even can’t really manage in an authoritative way as I have read plenty of review comments that find the researcher not credible in one field in cross-disciplinary work and that this has been a key reason why the project has not been postively evaluated. Despite the fact that lots of groundbreaking work takes place on the frontiers between disciplines it seems researchers can leave themselves vulnerable to criticism unless they really can stand astride the different domains. So, in conclusion, a modest team and highly focused calling in all the skills and only the skills necessary to achieve the objectives and above all not a consortium or a network.

It seems that paradoxically the ERC recognise that innovations take place where fields rub together and officially welcome cross-disciplinary work but appear to have trouble evaluating them effectively – I have seen a fair number of good proposals rejected for (inevitable) relative weaknesses when researchers are trying to develop projects on the frontier of their field and one they know but know less well. The task here is to appear convincing in all fields proposed and the rein in the ambition of the work until you can stand up to questioning in all core areas – I have heard some stories of proposers being savaged in interview in the areas of a cross-disciplinary proposal where they have less mastery by an expert suddenly roused from slumber by the smell of blood – be careful and conservative here.