Articulating the different logics flowing through the proposal

If you ask a researcher what they are going to do in a project they are planning then you’d best be prepared to wait until ‘until the cows come home’ before you can get a word into the discussion. This is where they feel most comfortable and will have no difficulty whatsoever in improvising a long and detailed response.  On the other hand, if you want to bring the same conversation to a quick end then slipping in the question of why this might be important generally does the job.  And this difference between the description of what the researcher will do and why exactly it might be worth doing it highlights and explains many of the problems at the core of proposals.  There is an important problem that very often needs to be overcome in the balancing out of two distinct ways of writing about the work if a really strong and competitive proposal is to result; this is where I spend a lot of my time when working on project review assignments.

The descriptive realm, the ‘doing’ and the ‘what’ part of the proposed project which corresponds to the daily work of most researchers is the place where they like to focus their writing effort.  They would be happy to write untroubled and care-free about what they’ll do, endlessly following knowledge as it unfolds from one finding and hypothesis to another.  The problem starts (and it is a very common problem indeed) when someone writing a proposal assumes that the whole thing can be done by describing what the tasks are and how one will follow on from another.  Too many writers seem to think the funder is paying for the activities alone and that they exist and a self-evidently important virtuous circle that in-and-of-itself should be irresistible to those with the money to spend.  It is impossible to win money from any funder by presenting what amounts to not very much more than descriptions of the work packages cut and pasted under the different headings of the template that they provide; and yet this in essence is what lots of proposal drafts are like.  And like all very common mistakes in proposal writing this contributes to the impression that many researchers have that funding is a lottery and a mystery.

One of the most important tricks in getting the logic of the proposal right and getting a persuasive rhetorical flow in place is to understand that in most calls and certainly in the ERC calls there is a dual logic at work and two types of argument need to be used and kept in careful tension as the work unfolds.  This is most evident in the ERC and other calls in the contrast between the argument they ask you to create in the first sections of the proposal which is about why the work is important (the breakthroughs, objectives and longer lasting beneficial effects and why these are urgently important) and the latter sections which are about what you’ll do to reach the ambitious end points.  I am certain that the first sections contain the stuff that the funders and looking to buy (i.e., the benefits of doing the work) whereas my experience tells me that most proposal writers want to give them they material they are most comfortable with and which makes up the bulk of the latter sections and work package descriptions (i.e., what they are planning to do).  The better this clash of types of idea is managed the better the proposal and both the ‘why’ sections and the ‘what’ sections need to be done excellently and brought into careful balance.

I would go as far as to say that the weaknesses in the early sections describing why the work is important are both the biggest reason for failure and at the same time the most difficult part for researchers in most areas of science to do as they are simply not very often asked to justify in convincing detail why their work matters or trained to do it.

In training sessions for writing ERC proposals I often use the ideas of inductive and deductive logic to explain the kinds of different argument that need to be brought to bear at different moment of the planning and drafting.  While they might seem like complex ideas to use in this process I think they are useful to help explain the different ways that ideas need to be presented to create a winning proposal.

Inductive logic is particularly useful in the early phases of the argument as it begins with a firm affirmation of truth, a conclusive statement and as I have explained elsewhere the key to the argument in an ERC proposal (and in proposals in general) is to work backwards from firm assertions of the ways in which the world will be improved by the project once it is complete.  The next manoeuvre is to get the reader to agree with this statement by bringing in ‘evidence’ to support it, grouping things and ideas that are similar and pointing them at a general conclusion that is probable based on the argument that has been pieced together.  The great advantage of induction or creating compelling argument is that the evaluator can easily follow the thread as the conclusion is set out at the beginning.  The argument can then move onto the next seemingly completely logical point and proceeds in this manner from conclusion to conclusion, each perfectly reasonable, until the evaluator is left with no choice but to agree to the strong probability that what is argued is true even if they had not necessarily been seeing the world in that way before starting to read.  Unfortunately, some writers push things too far and mistake the careful and respectful art of persuading the reader for trying to push them into seeing the world through the lens of the proposal and there can sometimes be a coercive or hectoring tone in some writing that is completely alienating and is to be avoided at all costs.

In practical terms and as far as the ERC proposals are concerned the opening phases of the argument are probably going to be (or probably should be) using inductive arguments.  Here we set out the overall objective, the ‘greater why’ argument and the changes in the field that are necessary and to which we’ll make a contribution at the end of this work when all the project level objectives are reached.  The text has to work hard from the very start to draw the reader’s attention quickly to the urgent issues at hand, to insist how important they are despite the fact that the evaluator might not have thought so before.   From the first sentence we are making a case, stating and supporting, bringing evidence to bear and giving a sense that this issue in this field at this moment is the big one that can’t be overlooked.  In some areas of science this is easy as everyone knows the intractable problems and everyone has been chipping away at them for ages.  In other areas of science, in social science and humanities in particular where there is little consensus about field boundaries, contents and pressing issues, the argument needs to be made even harder.

As the proposal moves on to the project level objectives i.e., the specific benefits that it promises at the end of the work, then again we are likely to be working most effectively if working inductively.  Objectives set out clear and ostensibly true statements of a better world that the project is going to bring about, a detailed affirmation of a new truth: that it is science fiction rather than fact needs to be overlooked and disbelief suspended.  These conclusions are then supported by evidence that makes it seem highly desirable and probably essential that these new end points are reached all costs.  And then in the state-of-the-art section we provide carefully argued ‘comprehensive’ assessment of the others working in the field, what they are doing and why on current trajectories we are going to miss the vital targets that the current project has been wise enough to set.  We can’t avoid it, I think, we are deep in the realms of inductive argument in these first phases of the proposal, stating conclusions, drawing together the evidence that supports them, arguing for probabilities even as we state them as new and urgent truths.

The attitude of the writer to the premises and the conclusion in these sections is that he or she believes they provide good reason for the argument to be true. I think that this is why some researchers who work in fields that depend entirely on what is known commonly as hard evidence find working in this more ‘top down’ and synthetic way quite difficult and find it hard to get out of the habit of describing their work in any other way than they’ll do this first and that second and then after that…

It is probably at this point of articulation (or of fracture in many cases) between selling the project on the basis of good strong probabilities that it will make a big difference and describing the machinery of how that will get done in practice that most of the projects that don’t fit together reveal their deepest and most destructive problems.  And making a successful and productive articulation between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ sections of the work is where most of my time is spent on projects and most of the value that I (hope I) add is injected.

When the proposal writer gets down to the section on methods where they tend to be most at home then a different way of thinking and writing comes into play.  Mainstream science methods are commonly described as being hypothetical-deductive and writing about them mainly uses deductive strategies, tropes and tactics.  The methods section is mostly and quite correctly written in an expert-to-expert style with the expectation that detailed technical and terminological information will be shared or at least clearly understood.  The argument is intended by the proposal writer to be valid and to provide a guarantee of the truth of the conclusions (whether these support or disprove the research hypotheses) as long as the assumptions hold true.  In an ideal case the deductive argument aims at categorical truth and to produce a sound argument rather than to merely establish a probability which is the job of the earlier sections on overall objective and focused project objectives.

Researchers in general have no difficulty writing when they believe their premises provide for their conclusions, when taking steps forward from existing knowledge to uncover what they confidently expect to find and are mostly quite capable of providing results that will function as evidence to back up their assertions.   In most cases the writing down the project layers at the level of methods is much stronger than in the earlier and more argumentative sections.  On the whole, in the hands of most researchers it flows from one activity and result and interim conclusion to another or cycles back on itself if the expected proof is does not emerge only to set off with equal confidence in an alternative direction – all very positive, all very confident and all very convincing, but only a part of the story of the proposal.

The difficulty arises when the material about the logical steps that will be taken down in the methods section are dragged up to the top sections where a different argument needs to be made.  This happens surprisingly often in one form or another and illustrates the difficulties that many researchers have when writing proposals which demands a distinct change of modality at a critical moment, a change of thinking and presentation that not everyone finds easy to do first time.  But the flow is clear – we need to group up ideas and create a convincing argument that is easy to sell in the first sections and back it up with carefully crafted methods to produce proof in the second half of the piece; it is not an easy balance to strike.