Researchers on risk

In the last month or two I have been travelling quite a lot to some very beautiful and interesting places around Europe. I have been delivering training courses on how to prepare competitive ERC proposals for each of the main types of projects, all of which have calls currently open.

The training presentations always generate plenty of discussion – depending on which version I have been asked to give it can last up to around 6 hours and cover all aspects of proposal writing in detail and include a very helpful and illustrative practical exercise at the end (if a willing victim or two can be found – usually they can). There is always plenty of opportunity to delve into and to try to address the audience’s concerns and while doing this whether during the session or at coffee or lunch many fascinating ideas emerge to challenge or confirm what I have been thinking about ERC proposals – I always learn something new, in fact, usually a lot of things.

And so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the things on researchers’ minds as we enter the proposal preparation stage proper.  So, what have I been seeing and hearing from researchers from different corners of the EU? I’ll look at things in no particular order in the next few posts.

Some very interesting discussions took place about the general character of the projects the ERC are funding in particular regarding the level of risk involved and how to respond to the frequently repeated dictum that projects are high risk/high gain. There is clearly much concern about what this might mean, quite understandably as it is never explained anywhere in the guidance material and ‘risk’ is not the stuff that researchers are used to writing about as a discrete topic.  Risk assessment is simply not a skill that many of them have had need to develop and nor is it a skill that the evaluators’ have either and so one has to wonder how they go about assessing risk with any degree of confidence.  I suspect that the whole discourse about risk could usefully be standardised and clarified so that everyone knows what on earth they are writing about because currently there in plenty of confusion in research communities about this.

As an aside, what it probably does mean in practice is that there are some fairly easy points to be won if you make this aspect of the proposal very easy to follow and walk the evaluator through the subject of risk and how you have assessed it and will control it – in the training presentation included in the post previous to this one there is a simple risk assessment table that can do the simple job on risk that these proposals require.

From the inputs of colleagues who had won projects in previous calls an interesting view on the topic of risk emerged which was quite consistent across the discussion that took place in the different meetings.  Some colleagues told how during their first and not successful proposal submission they were told that the projects were too risky. Other colleagues were told that the topic of risk was not well enough explained at interview and was the reason given for not funding the project despite it not having been mentioned at all in the evaluation. Various others explained that their projects weren’t in fact risky in any meaningful sense at all and that neither were those of any of their colleagues who had also been successful over the years.

Overall, the message seems to be that the subject of risk that apparently plays such a role in how the ERC positions itself against other programmes and in its own self-understanding is not really put into operation consistently or predictably.  In practice it played very little role in many winning bids whether this was because evaluators are unable to assess risk meaningfully and put the idea to work as a criterion consistently or whether they don’t actually factor it into the evaluations and give the idea very low priority is not clear.

What it means in practice is that researchers should aim to produce good, solid, feasible and manageable work clearly packaged up into a strong project ‘entity’ with a start, middle and end rather than going out of their way to find something risky, whatever that might mean. In summary, it looks like researcher’s should be aiming at creating proposals that pay respect to the vision of the ERC in certain key ways i.e., that they are single researcher driven, that they show that they are not simply the rolling out of the on-going work of the department and that they promise to take a step beyond the existing state-of-the-art. But it appears that there is not very much value added, if any at all, in trying to give the impression that projects are high risk or in proposing projects that are unfeasibly large or complex in the hope that this might be mistaken for risk rather than the bad planning that it actually is.