Any other business

This post will be the last one about the issues emerging from the discussion with researchers during recent training days in various cities across Europe – it is a loose group of interesting things to keep in mind during the writing of an ERC proposal. One topic was whether or not it was worth submitting a proposal to get useful feedback about it from the evaluators even if the researcher is not entirely convinced that the proposal will win in its current form i.e., throw it in and learn from the experience. I have often heard this opinion and it makes me wonder how institutions can afford the time for their staff to write less than excellent bids when pretty much all it will do is simply clog up an already over burdened evaluation system. I have also seen very often indeed that the feedback given doesn’t provide enough detail to serve as a useful guide to re-editing and improving the text and the discussion during these recent meetings bore this out. Very few researchers seem to get back the detailed comments that there were hoping for: it really isn’t some form of advanced project editing or review service but rather a fairly hasty sifting process to narrow down the field and to identify the fundable projects. This was brought home most starkly when a colleague reported that an evaluator had written one sentence only – “This is not interesting.”  Of course, this is as much a problem with the project as with the evaluation as it should be possible to make any idea compelling enough that it can’t be pushed aside with this very general comment.  It reinforces the fact that a Iot of hard thinking needs to go into making the ideas attractive, challenging, relevant to the field and feasible. But what I think it indicates above all else is that the value of the comments back really won’t justify the work involved in any submission, even a half-hearted one. Researchers in my view should only be participating with proposals that stand a real chance of winning and I am certain that everyone can get there quite quickly and create a competitive text if they follow fairly simple rules – many of which I hope that I have already set out in the posts on this blog.

Successful candidates also gave some very helpful insight into how they had prepared for their interview in Brussels. One excellent piece of advice was to rehearse the interview presentation in front of colleagues from your field at your home institution where you can expect trusted and detailed in feedback on the way the idea is presented, the competitive and the weaker aspects of the idea and also supportive comments on the style of presentation and how this a aspect might be improved without focussing unduly on presentation skills in the abstract as some presentation sessions tend to do. What a candidate needs is an outstanding idea backed by simple slides and a competent, confident presenter who is clearly committed to the project and convinced of its importance: a persuasive presentation will flow naturally from each and every candidate if the level of belief and clarity is right.

One successful candidate had organised three separate rounds as interview practice with departmental staff as the supportive but critical audience and by the end of the three iterations felt confident enough to face anything a real panel might throw at him – and in the event was able to deal with all issues arising in the interview as they had been covered in the practice sessions. Another successful candidate told how he and colleagues had worked together to anticipate all the possible questions about their proposal and interview presentation slide: in total this researcher wrote down 80 possible questions and had strong answers to them all memorised before facing the interview panel in Brussels. In the event, no questions were posed that an answer had not already been prepared for. While 80 answers might seem like a lot of work, this is a game in which there is a lot at stake – both large sums of money and significant reputational benefits – and so that amount of work isn’t excessive and very likely gave this winning candidate an edge in interview. Even the most accomplished and apparently natural public speakers never try to ‘wing it’ or to improvise and often lavish vast amounts of time on preparation and practice and the ERC calls are no different and it is impossible to be over prepared.  In fact, only once the presentation flows logically and communicates simply and his been committed to memory so that its delivery is ‘automatic’ and doesn’t require very much thought is it possible for the researcher to be able to react spontaneously or improvise in the face of difficult or unforeseen questions.

Interview practice organised with groups of colleagues and with others who are preparing for the process seems like a very effective way of preparing for the gruelling visit to Brussels. Preparing with experts from your field has the advantage of making the questions real and relevant to the details of the project you have put forward. It seems to be the most important kind of preparation you can do in this context where expertise really makes the difference between winning and losing.  There seems to me to be less value here in generic presentation training than in some other less specialised contexts – i.e., look everyone in the eye, wave arms around in expansive way etc. It is likely in the ERC interview a convincing presentation will be driven by simplicity and clarity which will allow the enthusiasm and expertise of the researcher to shine through – if the researcher is convinced of the importance of the work this will generate sufficient energy and enthusiasm to carry the proposal through far more effectively than any behaviours or tricks that might be taught in a presentation training event. As with the writing of the proposal, the difference and benefit the project is promising is the starting point for persuading the panel.  If the researcher finds the points in the work that really get them excited then the gestures to back up this passion and to get the message across to the audience will flow naturally and effectively.

Another interesting feature of recent training events has been, when time has allowed for it, a practical exercise in ’real time’ using goal oriented project planning techniques with volunteers from the audience. The exercise involves first finding a ‘willing victim’ who is happy to stand up in front of the (often quite large) group and improvise a project plan on the spot in a language that is not their mother tongue – luckily there were plenty of very enthusiastic researchers willing to give it a try out including most senior academics that I was working with. The technique itself was a short version of logical framework planning (explained in previous blog posts) which we used to sketch out overall objectives, project purpose (objectives statements), intended results and activities. Ideas were ‘brainstormed’ on a wall using coloured cards and marker pens so that members of the audience could read, comment and ask questions to help refine the ideas.  As it often does, the process of explaining ideas precisely and writing them down revealed that they weren’t quite as clear to the researcher as they had imagined and there was quite a lot of fuzziness in the ideas that they had been carrying around in their heads: this is completely typical. Through responding to comments and questions from peers and by trying to fit quite unwieldy ideas into the tighter structure of the log frame the ideas became clearer and ERC-proposal-ready very quickly. In fact a group of peers aIl of whom are thinking about submitting a proposal is an excellent audience to do this exercise with.  Everyone present is also struggling with the issue of how complex ideas can be refined and clarified in order to get them into the structure of an ERC proposal and so are an engaged and thoughtful audience with which to sketch out ideas. Of course, they are also a good approximation for evaluators or an interview panel in that they are all excellent scientists with a good general grasp of a wide range of science issues but without a great deal of specific domain knowledge; i.e., exactly the kind of audience that the proposal writer needs to write for during the first, critical paragraphs in which a wide range of possible scientific but non-domain-expert readers need to imagined.

These exercises brought home to me one or two things very clearly. Firstly, they confirmed that it is possible to get a good outline plan for an ERC proposal in place very quickly – it can easily be done in under an hour if the researcher works from the top down by starting at the level of the project objectives. It also demonstrated again that this is not the place where researchers habitually start thinking and planning – they always tend to start with the description of the activities which is where they are most comfortable. However, this not really the material that funders are interested in nor the stuff they are hoping to buy.  The core of the project and the heart of the sales pitch is the objectives section of the proposal which sets out ‘why’ this is a project worth buying or, in fact, why it shouldn’t be missed. In most of the ‘live’ project planning I did in these recent sessions the same ’missing middle’ phenomenon emerged. Researchers were all outstanding when describing what it is they needed money to do – i.e., that ‘what’ and the ’how’ sections of the work.  Some were quite strong when setting out the overall objective of the work i.e., the general field-level issue they would be working on. However, when it came to the particular differences and benefits they were promising to create there was mostly a bit of a gap.  The space was filled mostly, if at all, by promoting activities and results into the place of objectives so that the purpose and end point of the project was to do the activities and to deliver its deliverables  There was very little in the way of an explanation of why the activities and results are important and why any funder might be interested in this work and this new stuff. The details about what benefits the research community will get having this work done and these deliverables is largely left to the imagination.  This tendency to leave out the objectives (i.e., the results of having the results) is one of the main reasons so many proposals fail, in my view and needs to be avoided at all costs. These short planning games showed these gaps are typical in ERC proposals and that the gaps occur at the very moment when the project needs to be selling itself hardest and setting itself in contrast to competitors (i.e., the gaps are in the objectives section).  With these short idea visualisation and planning exercises we were able to identify this weakness and develop the rudiments of good objectives very quickly and get the real planning phase off in the right direction: I think it is an excellent way to start.