Sometimes I get asked about how I measure the success of the work that we do on ERC proposals and how I know that what I say about writing for the ERC works and makes a difference. The best answer that I can give to this is that people who I have worked with and who have won often take the trouble to write to me and say that the work we did together was decisive in their view – and I guess that these are the people who know best of all what value the review process added.
The feedback I get falls into two main categories or two areas where clients have felt that they got most benefit. Firstly, I get strong messages that the work we did was a turning point in the process of deciding whether or not to put pen to paper in the first place. Researchers mention that they were motivated to take the proposal writing seriously after discussing their proposal outline with me. They say that they had been undecided whether or not to go ahead, debating whether or not to dedicate the time required and uncertain if it was worth the effort and whether or not the competition was a fair and open one as stories circulating tend to suggest that it isn’t. I often see some very good researchers with potential to win in this state of uncertainty and try to correct their impressions about the calls, tell them it is an open competition and that their ideas and profile are right to win – basically giving them the self-belief that is necessary to undertake the hard work of proposal writing with winning first time as the aim.
Over the years I have encountered researchers who seem to think that participating in the calls with half baked proposals is in some sense a valuable learning process, that they will get some feedback and be in a better position to win in future. This seems to be a mistaken attitude simply because the feedback is mostly not precise enough to learn anything from and the penalties for failing exclude you from immediate re-submission. I think the only way to do it is to do it with the expectation of winning and it seems that for many researchers being told in our interview sessions that theirs is a great idea and that they are the right person to win and that theirs is a credible institution is encouragement enough for them to get involved properly and aggressively.
The second type of feedback I get is that the logical planning work that we start in one-to-one interview sessions and continue through remote mentoring and review up until the submission deadline helps to clarify thinking and writing. In fact, many of the reviews I do are not based on an initial interview but are done entirely remotely and the same feedback has been received. The process of unpacking the layers of the work and making harder-hitting objectives statements has been particularly appreciated. Working with an external expert who has a clear overview of the things that need to be in a winning proposal and in what order they should be presented to be as open as possible to evaluation and make the greatest impact on the reader has been warmly appreciated by many of the researchers I have worked with. Perhaps, above all, it is the focus on winning that is really important to clients and the simplicity that this injects into the thinking, planning and writing process. We quickly cut through the mythology surrounding the ERC and get down to looking at the ideas, finding the really groundbreaking aspects of them and setting this out as a clear and saleable proposition to the funder.
When the institutions with which we work have asked for written feedback from participants the responses have been uniformly positive – the strong sense we get from this is that even in communities of researchers with experience across EU and US our services are unique in their intensity, their in-depth analyses, in the demands they make on the research to think and evaluate their work, in their rigour, logic and in their effectiveness. It has often been mentioned that our services go well beyond those offered in university support offices and proposal development consultancies that researchers have worked with previously.
So strongly have some researchers felt the benefits of logical framework planning are to their work that some have mentioned that they’d employ me, if resources allowed, to advise on the logical presentation of all of their research proposals whether national or international and on plans for research papers and other writing related to research. It has even been mentioned that the work that I do is a kind of ‘research therapy’ to help the researcher see their problems and ideas in a clearer light and to put them in better order to persuade research funders of their value. I assume that the exploratory and loosely structured question and answer process, the vague air of a non-judgemental ‘Socratic dialogue’ hanging about the process might give this impression to individuals or teams struggling to match their emerging thoughts to strict and sometimes rather odd headings and sub-headings that they find in proposal templates. I take this as a great compliment.
In other areas of EC funding where we have also worked very extensively and continue to do so currently I have been asked to take project management roles in projects that have been worked up from scratch and successfully funded. This is never a condition of my writing the proposals – I am told that this is sometimes a demand made by some consultancies who work on a contingency fee basis – and have accepted these offers on a couple of occasions when it was in everyone’s interests. The clients had been very impressed by our role in winning the work (sometimes against what they thought were stiff odds) and they viewed us as a very ‘safe pair of hands’ where EC matters are concerned that they trusted us to steer the funded project towards its objectives. The high levels of confidence that clients have repeatedly shown in our company over the years is something that I consider as proof that our services are successful and well respected.
And, above all, the measure of success that is clearest and simplest is that we are asked back to the same research institutions, universities and business schools year after year and many of these clients are world-leaders. Of course we have to be realistic about the direct causal effects of the work that we do. For example, the last time we worked with large regional administration on a tranche of ERC proposals a few years ago they had nine winning projects in one call and of the nine winners I had worked fairly intensively on six. I am proud of results like this, of course, as I believe it indicates that real value has been added but wouldn’t claim that without this input none of the group I worked with would have won – it is simply impossible to know that and I am very cautious about mistaking correlation for causality here. However, when I do receive detailed written comments and emails which attribute the success of the proposal to the review process I undertook with the researcher then I think we are on much firmer ground. And on this basis I am then confident about claiming that our clear, logical, objective and win-orientated approach really does make a difference to ERC proposal development.