Whenever I give a training event in the discussion that follows the topic of ‘excellence’ always comes up and the level of ‘excellence’ that the researcher needs for them to be seriously considered for funding. Talking to researchers it soon becomes clear that there is a widely held belief that only the absolutely brilliant and outstanding researcher is in with any kind of a chance in these calls. This belief is accompanied by the very widely held view that the winners all have a cv as long as their arm and that it is packed full of leading journal articles. And this shibboleth, in turn, is generally accompanied by the very firmly held principle that the proposals are all weighed up and the money distributed on the basis of publications record largely regardless of the content and quality of the project being put forward.
During discussion at recent training events this topic came up as it always tends to do. I generally try to make as good a case as I can to dispel these unhelpful assumptions by describing the many cases that I know of which show that the cv is not the only or even the most important element of a winning bid. When I attempt to encourage and persuade candidates that they can win with a great idea backed up by a cv that shows that they are eligible and credible I mostly meet with general disbelief. In fact, so widespread and difficult to budge are these assumptions about the power of the cv alone and the outstanding personal qualities of the winners that I place this category of idea firmly in the “excuses and displacement activities” file. Over the years I have heard a long list of reasons not to write a proposal and which are worthy of a blog entry on their own as it is a very curious thing to see researchers go through an unhelpful round of doubt and uncertainty before facing up to the challenge of writing the proposal head on and looking it directly in the eye. It is no surprise that people tend to do this , as the work involved is fairly challenging and demands quite a lot of time to do well and so it makes sense that busy researchers pause you a moment before dedicating themselves to the tasks.
There is a deeper reason at work here too I suspect and it is related to the fact that ERC projects are focused on the work of individual scientists and that all candidates have to put themselves and their work up for assessment in a way that makes it appear to many of them that the evaluation is an appraisal at both themselves as professionals and of the body of work they have been building carefully over long years. More than other programmes, the ERC exposes researchers to rigorous scrutiny by peers and to be found wanting leaves many with a painful narcissistic wound, as a Freudian might say. Not all researchers feel this way about the process but many do and I think the high level of personal and professional exposure that these proposals involves for many explains why some will search far and wide for justification and rationalisation of their general and uneasy sense that it is not for them or rather that they are not for it. Many researchers have learnt through experience to take a greater distance from proposal writing and the version of their work and their person that they represent there. This distance has helped them both to become more opportunistic in their approach and more flexible and to have developed a much thicker skin which is the right way of doing things I am sure.
But to get back to the subject of excellence discussed in recent meetings, for a change, it wasn’t me trying to convince the groups of researchers that not only geniuses with a mind blowing cv were likely winners. Giving examples from their own experience and that of close colleagues successful researchers argued and illustrated the case that, certainly in the StGs, one good publication was enough to carry them through. The message coming from these researchers is that eligible candidates with some evidence of having started on the path towards independence or building on a promising foundation with an excellently presented idea can succeed. In fact, they argued from their own experience that good, innovative researchers are the core audience on these programmes i.e., practically all researchers across the EU – it couldn’t be otherwise, of course, as there are unlikely to be thousands and thousands of scientific geniuses at work in the Europe at any one time and certainly not enough, at least, to fill all the places available and use up all the money the ERC must spend every year. Even when delivered by their colleagues and peers many researchers are quite reluctant to take this message at face value – however, in StGs and CoGs at least it does appear to be true and should be an encouraging message that us worth taking very seriously.