Goldilocks Zone

The ERC programmes are a very particular kind of ecosystem and support only certain kinds of quite rarefied life. As many of the previous posts have tried to show, there is very little point in trying to propose certain kinds of projects here. They don’t want to read about networks or consortium actions – the guidelines make this clear, clearer, in fact, that in the early years which suggests that they have seen rather too much of this type of material cropping up. And nor do they want to see, I suggest, work that is clearly everyday work of departments that are running out of cash and need a new injection to keep things on a even keel. And neither is it about presenting ‘repurposed’ failed bids from other parts of FP7 (deceased) or H2020, these rarely have the right characteristics to be convincing ERC projects and mostly it is not worth trying to make them into one. And there are various other types of work that are fairly commonly seen but which are not the single-researcher-driven, bottom-up, fresh, innovative and ground breaking work that the programmes are encouraging and promoting and which are not likely to succeed in the process or do so only by luck.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is to do with the way that the project objectives are chosen – the project objectives being the real beating heart of the project and the battleground where the proposal is won and lost. Too often the project objectives are the things that the researcher would really like to do. In many ways this is a good way of setting the targets to aim at in a project like this, at least on the face of it, as the work demands real insight and tons of commitment which is often most convincingly given to objectives which are the real enthusiasms of the person writing, and this come across. And sometimes these do make good objectives too.

However, this is far from being the whole story as very often, very often indeed in fact, the challenges the researcher would like to address are not ones that actually make for a very good ERC proposal. Often, for example, it is difficult to find success measures and indicators for work that is close to the heart of the researcher as it might be launched on a hunch that it is a great idea and needs to be done – a sign perhaps that the researcher has been working away for quite a while down a burrow where things begin to seem obvious and where justification of the work in time, in numbers, in cash savings and other measurable and verifiable benefits seems not very necessary in the urge to get the work done as it is self-evidently important. But nothing is ever self-evidently clear or obvious or important and this is a poor logic when presenting proposals of any kind. And it is, in particular, difficult to win in the ERC unless the differences the project will make in the field are presented in measurable and verifiable form – anything can be measured, and needs to be.

And there are other reasons why the objectives set might not be good ones for the ERC, and the list is long and rather complex and hopefully will be set out either directly as a post or inside the posts to come when I begin to think more carefully about exactly how to set the objectives out. However, for the moment, suffice it to say that very often the objectives are too modest – by this I simply mean that they are things that are fairly likely to happen whether the ERC addresses them or not, that there is poor ‘additionality’ for the programme and a weak case for any extra public intervention at all. These are often the general objectives of the work the researcher is doing in the day-to-day life of the department and don’t have the necessary ‘this is something I really can’t do without the exceptional support of the ERC’ quality about them.

Or, very often, having focused too much, on the idea of ‘high risk/high gain’ being absolutely central to a winning bid (it isn’t, at least not in a very simple way) the researcher sets out something that is simply too ambitious and too far over the horizon for it to be evaluatable – or at least simply evaluatable or to easily attract a positive consensus opinion which is the aim. Often they crowd the proposal with work packages and steps that would take more like 15 years than five to complete thinking that this offers value for money (not a concept that is obviously brought be bear on the assessment of ERC proposals): it doesn’t.

Or, perhaps most commonly, the lack of detail about objectives and the poor fit of the objectives selected with the call can be explained by the simple fact that not enough work has been put into clarifying what the project is really about and what it actually promises to change and when and to what degree. A good test might to imagine that the proposal was being presented for private sector funding – most would simply not be considered seriously because they are too light on detail of all kinds. Clearly, the ERC is not a private funder, but it is a good thought exercise nonetheless to try to remove vagueness that comes from fuzzy thinking and presentation rather than (as we are often told) from the complexity of the ideas.

So, when considering objectives a fairly large number of factors need to be kept in mind and a certain approach needs to be adopted. The approach is to be willing to ditch assumptions about what are appropriate and interesting objectives if they simply don’t fit into the rules of the game that is being played here. In some cases the poor fit is with the ‘letter’ of the law and they work proposed is simply not the right stuff, while more often it is the ‘spirit’ of the programme that is being overlooked and work that is too plodding or too blue sky is proposed and also can’t be reliably or predictably assessed.

If you find that the objectives that are the ones you had hoped to drive the project with are not quite the most competitive ones for this programme it is not sensible to proceed. If the researcher is most interested in winning and taking this opportunity rather than grinding a particular axe and honing its edge regardless (as many seem intent on doing) then ‘…if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee…’ (Matthew 5:30) and find something to propose that stands a better chance of winning i.e., be pragmatic and opportunistic keeping in mind the size of the prize and the apparently vast odds against. So, as a starting point, write the thing to win and not just to make up the numbers.

This is not to suggest that you ditch your knitting entirely – but that the researcher begin a process of shifting and scoping and moving the glass around the wall until you can hear precisely and in detail what the neighbours are shouting at each other about, or of changing the lenses in the testing device until you can read to the end of the wall chart. The aim is to find the ‘sweet spot’ in the field in which will create maximum effect for the starting conditions that the researcher is working with, and largely stuck with, when the proposal is being made.

Astronomers speak about the ‘circumstellar habitable zone’ which is the zone around a star where various factors (in particular an atmospheric pressure that can support liquid water at the surface) might conceivably allow for the development of Earth-like life. Often, and more memorably, it is known as the ‘Goldilocks zone’, a name derived from the fairly tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which a small girl strays into the den of a bear family and tries out their seats and beds and eats their porridge (depending on the version) rejecting the too big or small or hot or cold etc. before always settling on the one that is ‘just right’. And it is this process of actively and clear sightedly setting out to find the ‘just right’ that the researcher with the wrong kind of project objectives needs to do to improve the chances of success.

The idea of the Goldilocks zone is contested in science but as a thinking exercise it is very useful in the context of the ERC as a number of factors need to be carefully weighed up to place the objectives in exactly the right spot where they are most buyable. It is also useful as it makes it clear that the habitable zone in this particular programme ecosystem is quite small, quite rare and has specific characteristics. There are many critical dimensions and they’ll need to be unpacked at greater length in later posts and they all need to be held in tension as they are carefully shifted and eased into the spot where the project becomes hard to resist.

Obviously, there are questions of time as it must be possible to reach these objectives in five years so they can’t be science fiction (entirely, although they have to be a bit as no one can really see much beyond six months). And yet five years is a very long time to push the world forward a bit and so they do need to be ambitious and ‘uncomfortable’ enough to be worth doing and carefully phased with milestones so that the project remains relevant as time moves forward (as no one can really see much beyond the end of six month cycles).

And equally obviously there are questions of budget, which is a major constraint in fact and which will to a large extent determines just what objectives can be set. The budgets are large for individual grants, but split between a team even comprised of affordable post docs or similar over the duration (which always seems to be the maximum that can be requested) the money will soon be spent in a typical project. So what can actually, realistically be done? – calculating this will determine the promises that will be made to a large extent. It is not that there is any evidence that providing excellent and lean value of money is a competitive advantage and that there is a benefit to proposing more for less (it would be an interesting study that explored this) but simply that lots of projects obviously promise to do far too much stuff for the money that might be given, some are very poorly described in this respect and far too optimistic.

And a third major dimension is the cv – this is difficult to change in the short term and, while an argument can be created to some extent as to why past experience makes the researcher the best person of the job, mostly it is as it is. The cv is a major enabler or limiter of what can be proposed – it is tough to win if your cv doesn’t back up your promises and there seems to be very little slack in this area.

And then another common dimension of the work is the extent to which is crosses frontiers between disciplines. Despite claiming to want work of this type (that new things emerge where fields rub up against each other is well known) it is common to see proposals fail because the evaluator finds the work weak in the ‘other’ field where the proposer is less expert. So, you’ll have to wind in the ambition of the work to the point where you can deal with the core of the work in whatever field it sits as mastery of the core business wins more projects than ambitious claims to work across disciplines however tempting in this programme (partly given the ‘high risk/gain’ equation floating around – and this is the wrong kind of risk…) to make them.

And there are other strands in the complex net of ideas that make up a winning text that need to be adjusted carefully to ensure the material has the best chance of being well evaluated – and these I hope to cover another time. A successful proposal is the nexus of a constellation of partial success factors that need to converge, or in fact, need to be made to converge and held in quite careful tension. Suffice it to say, that the end result is that we need to be willing to choose objectives that are the best fit for the job in hand and that we need to go about this choice and adjustment very open mindedly and self consciously (even opportunistically) in order to create a saleable proposition if the first objectives that spring to mind or the ones we’d really like to aim at aren’t the ones that are most likely to fly. In this respect (as in all others, in fact) these proposals are very clearly mostly created using the ‘art of the possible’.