A blog about how to write competitive ERC proposals

This blog is about the work I have been doing at A Bigger Splash Ltd on European Research Council projects since late 2007. During that time I have read and reviewed and commented on over 400 ERC projects of all types. This is, as far as I know, a unique body of knowledge and experience.

I believe that this work deserves space of its own because it throws up a lot of very interesting and sometimes very peculiar issues about how to write effectively to win funding both in the ERC proposals and in the wider world of Horizon 2020 and national programmes. In brief, there is lots to be learnt about proposal writing and, as we all know, proposal writing is an ever more important skill for researchers in all institutions in all fields as budgets get tighter and competition tougher.

There is a stack of things to write on this topic as over the past eight years some very clear best practices have emerged for winners – as well as equally clear and perhaps more fascinating ‘worst practice’ for the unsuccessful. But even now, after looking at so many proposals new things are emerging which create new interest in the topic – mostly, it must be said, new and more elaborate forms of error as the structure of a winning bid tends to remain the same and to be fairly easy to spot as they are rigorously logical and coherent.

So, my hope is that what might appear on the face of it to be a rather dry theme to take up can lead to some interesting conclusions about the logic and rhetoric of writing about complex ideas in the very demanding format of a proposal template and responding well to the odd questions that are asked there. At the very least it will give me a reason and a place to wonder out loud why, for example, it is so hard for researchers to grasp the very particular rules of the game we are playing here and why so many seem so reticent about saying exactly what difference their research will make once all the interesting activities are completed.

More importantly and urgently, I’ll also try to unpick and hold up to the light to better understand the machinery behind some proposals which are so lucid and persuasive that the ideas drop as if inevitably from one logical layer to the next and that hardly need be read at all: these rare fauna are, it hardly needs to be said, the most competitive of all.

The job I do on ERC texts is to offer advice through detailed written comments on how to push them over the line into the group that will be read very seriously and which are in competition for funding – the final decision on funding is always to some extent in the lap of the gods but I think it is possible to get reliably into the group of serious contenders.

This very rigorous review and coaching is done with individual researchers from universities, research centres and business schools across the EU as well as with larger groups of researchers from the same institution in which case the intensive individual dialogue is often kicked off by a training event to set the writers heading off in the right direction.

So, through this blog I hope to share a little of the accumulated wisdom that might help researchers stack the odds a little in their favour in an ever more oversubscribed set of programmes.
Here at the start it seems appropriate to set the scene a little better and explain one or two things about the background to this body of work. This line of business has grown out of the work I did on international projects while I was employed in the Generalitat de Catalunya (the government of Catalonia, Spain) in Barcelona.

Working at the Generalitat I found that people would regularly ask how to present their ideas to stand the best chance of getting funding and I’d happily offer an opinion and show them what I thought a strong and logical presentation should be like. I’d given this some thought over the years I had been working in consulting companies where winning work was the basic survival skill.

I combined my recommendations with a very detailed understanding of how European Commission programmes work and the kind of argument you need to create in each context to put a (very rare) smile on the exhausted evaluator’s face and help prise open the lid of the coffer and it seemed to have an immediate impact.

Very quickly one or two projects that the teams involved thought were very long shots were funded much to everyone’s surprise and pleasure and very positive work of mouth soon spread and requests for consultancy in this area grew and have been a steady stream since then.

And so, with that introduction over and, perhaps, with appetites whetted and interests sufficiently piqued I hope that the reader will follow entries here over the coming months as the ideas unfold. I promise at least that you will be given some food for thought and some pointers on how to avoid some of the commonest mistakes. I’ll also attempt to get across some clear ideas about what competitive writing in this niche area looks like, how it functions in detail and some suggestions about how to put together a dynamic and competitive submission.

In the coming weeks I will start this blog by setting out the very basic things that I have encountered repeatedly over the years and which I tend to use as the groundwork whenever working with new of researchers aiming at the ERC programmes. I hope that these are interesting in and of themselves and that, should we ever work together on an assignment, we’ll already be some way to sharing a set of assumptions about how proposals work in this very particular corner of the funding universe.

I should, of course, add although it goes without saying really that the views expressed here are entirely my own and based solely on my work with researchers since the start of these programmes and by seeing what kind of work wins and what kind of work tends not to. I have worked with and spoken to a number of ERC officers over the years about what they are looking for in proposals but don’t have any links with the organisation and depend entirely on adding value to clients’ portfolios of ERC work to make sure they keep coming back to ask me for more reviews and training.