Starting out – go/no go

A year or so ago I created a spread sheet to capture the comments that I had made on the hundreds of ERC proposals reviewed in detail and to explore the different types of problems I had come across and to try to sort out the minor from the major issues that came up time and again. I have been updating this file with more good and bad practice that I have seen over the last year or so and have put all ideas collected into a number of clusters which I will be discussing on this blog over the coming weeks and months.

The first cluster of things to avoid can be seen in this image Very common simple mistakeswhich sets out in a mindmap the most common and simplest mistakes that I have seen over the years. They are probably not in themselves fatal errors but if more than one or two are seen in any single text it can become difficult to read and will create some doubt in the evaluator’s mind as they are reading.

But firstly there is a very simple decision about if to go ahead or not. There is a wide range of pressures acting on researchers to generate funding these days and this pressure is likely to increase significantly over the years. In some countries where I am working currently researchers are not yet under the intense daily pressure to win money from external programmes and in some places it doesn’t make a great deal of difference if they do or not as far as their promotion prospects are concerned as other factors are at play in this and are more powerful. However, as budgets continue to shrink and there is less funding from national sources or from other previously reliable sources the pressure to win money will increase sharply. Where the pressure is already felt in all disciplines, such as the UK, it will most likely get even more intense in the years to come.

However, these pressures whether they are part of the wider culture or are direct and immediate pressures being brought to bear inside departments should not lead any researchers to make hurried or ill-thought-out proposals which simply do not fit with the letter and the spirit of the law in the ERC programmes. I’ll take a look in more detail and what I mean by ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of the law in this context below, but I’d like to stress here that as a first step all prospective researchers should read the very clear and simple background material from the ERC website about what the game is and who will be a contender for success in it. The ERC actually do mean what they say there and those words really do guide the selections of projects that they make – it is not like other schemes and if your project is not single investigator led and groundbreaking basic research then there really is no point in trying to participate.

So, I’d be very careful to weigh up as the very first step in the proposal development process whether or not to put pen to paper. Most researchers find that a good proposal demands very significant amounts of time to create. While I think there a ways of shortening this process very considerably –and I will deal with this methods for fast writing in later posts – it tends to take a great deal of work and this will be time wasted if there is no chance of winning, of course. I have heard it said more than once at workshops that writing and failing is in itself a learning experience but simply don’t agree that it is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I can’t imagine that even junior academics have this time to waste when they could be doing things to make it more likely that they will win in the future (i.e., writing and research), and if they do now then certainly in years to come moves to increase efficiency and effectiveness will mean that they don’t.

Secondly, to enter a game that you can’t win suggests that people are trusting to luck or believe the process to be a random one – it is simply not a feet-on-the-ground outlook and plus it clogs up the system.

Thirdly, the feedback from the evaluators at the first stage is often so general that many researchers find it unsatisfactory and learn nothing from it which makes nonsense of the idea that to try and fail might teach the researcher something, it invariably doesn’t.

Fourthly, there is a real danger of some researchers receiving what Freudians might call a ‘narcissistic wound’. In fact, it would appear that more than in other programmes the ERC can make researchers feel exposed and sometimes slightly apprehensive. This is mostly to do, I imagine, with the fact that the ERC programmes demand, uniquely, that individual researchers are asked to try to speak ‘in their own voice’ about very basic issues in their professional field in which they are, correctly, very highly invested. Also, the work is reviewed by peers, so it might seem that the proposal and its fate holds up a mirror and researchers take what they see reflected there very personally.

So, particularly in regard to writing a failed proposal I have seen some researchers take it very much to heart and to take some time to recover their confidence in their work and so writing a proposal that doesn’t fit the programme can be a very negative experience indeed. The result can often be that researchers have an increasingly cynical reaction to the programmes (and to all research funding programmes by association, in fact) believing that it is luck, or lobbying or other behind the scenes work, or the cv alone that wins and their experience sours their thinking about the ERC unnecessarily. Of course, the answer is to develop a thicker skin and shrug off the disappointment – but that would take post-proposal therapeutic sessions that no one, yet, has asked me to conduct…

And the last point, and the most obvious is that there are restrictions in place to deter research from submitting less strong proposals i.e., a one or two year delay is put on resubmission for those scoring ‘B’ or ‘C’ during the first round evaluation.

In conclusion, therefore, the very first thing to do and the first thing that I do will all researchers that I work with on proposal reviews is to get a clear view on eligibility – is the idea groundbreaking and single researcher driven and does the principle investigator meet the basic entry criteria as well as having a credible track record in the field. If not then my first advice is always to wait rather than to proceed – the ERC is not going to go away and some issues such as improving a cv or building credibility in a new research area are like turning around a large ship, they take some time to do. All the effort that is put into failed bids can be better used in strategic and longer term work to build a winning position for future rounds. So, with all the pressures acting on researchers it will be tempting to try and to hope. However, the evaluation process in my experience is very efficient and the hopeful candidates in the overwhelming majority of cases are quickly weeded out and score poorly. If in doubt, don’t start writing would be my advice, think strategically and plan for the longer term – this may seem obvious, and it is, but many researchers plough on with little chance of success when it would be more sensible to come back to the ERC programmes when they are in stronger position to win.