Writing the objectives: for the first time

This is the one of a series of posts that cover the issue of how to write effective objectives quickly.  Other aspects are covered in discussions of writing backwards, thinking SMARTly and FINER, and making sure that we are making promises about something new in a very strong sense. As mentioned frequently elsewhere, I think that the objectives statements are the heart of a successful proposal and poorly written ones the main cause for failure.  It is tough to get attractive and ambitious objective statements down on the page and it is, probably the part of the proposal that will take longest to get right.

Most scientists are pretty comfortable when speaking and what they want to do and so the methods sections tend to flow – the is their work day-to-day and deals with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ issues of the proposed work.  The objectives are different types of ideas, a different category of concept and address the question of ‘why’ the work is important and worthy of funding.  Most scientists are not quite so familiar with answering the question of why their work should be supported by a large injection of public money, why it is so important that it deserves this over and above the competing claims of hundreds of other apparently equally worthy researchers.  But hard hitting objectives can be written better and more quickly than they normally are by looking at the basic features of these statements and making sure they are all there – immediately things will be looking better than they are in the majority of the texts that I get to read, even the ones in fairly late stages of development.

Something that will appear obvious to many readers is done very badly by most writers of ERC proposals – it is easy to state here but pretty difficult to find ‘in the wild’.  The reader needs to get (but mostly fails to receive) a very strong sense that this is a breakthrough, that the findings are original, simply that these objectives have not been reached before, that these new fully realised, controllable and predictable new powers of knowledge don’t already exist somewhere or other.  In very simple terms the objective statement needs to contain the idea ‘for the first time I will be able to…’ – clearly not every objective statement can contain this exact phrase, but the idea of originality, of discovery or at least of a very strong element of innovation needs to be caught and presented very clearly in the foreground of the objective statement.

When drafting the objective statements I think it would be a good exercise to start the thinking and writing process by working with two simple ideas which are critical.  Firstly, I’d suggest kicking off with a time phrase i.e.,’ At the end of the project’ (most objectives seem to be reached at the end of the work, but it could just as easily be at end of month 20 or 30 if the planning is accurate, which would also then imply that resource planning could be done very accurately too, but this is another topic).  This time dimension is very important as it gives a good impression that the project is properly planned and phased and that you know exactly when the end points will be reached even if they are not all at the end of the project duration.

So, a quick start to thinking about each objective (there are, for reasons touched on in other posts, normally three objectives in projects of this size and duration) would be to finish the phrase ‘By the end of the project (or other specified time) I will for the first time be able to …’  This gives the statements both the necessary time dimension to show careful planning and feasibility as well as originality which are both necessary components of well drafted objectives statements.  How to continue with that sentence will be the subject of the following posts as there are certain concepts and categories of ideas that need to be included, in my view, and certain others that are commonly included but which are not helpful as they obscure what need to be bold and committed and crystal clear statements.

Clearly, I think originality is a very important part of a winning objective statement – I am convinced of it.  This also throws a bit more light on why the state-of-the-art section of the proposal is so critical.  Again, what this section is about and how to write it is the topic of a number of earlier posts in this blog.  In a nutshell, it is a thorough overview of the part of the research field in which you are going to be working and making breakthroughs.  It needs to be done at a fine level of resolution so that individual researchers in particular institutions and the papers they are producing etc. are set out and carefully referenced.  The state-of-the-art argument needs to prove that while there might be plenty of work going on in the field and the problem you are addressing is being addressed in certain ways this work is not going to take us where we need to go.  Or it might indicate that no work is being done in the part of the field that you focusing on and that nearest work is not going to deliver the benefits you are promising.  Or any number of other types of argument that prove that there is a gap in knowledge which you are going to fill.

In fact, it is the gaps that you are looking for in the state-of-the-art, the missing bits without which your project is not necessary – if it has been done or it if it is going to be done then we don’t need any more work on that as money is scarce and the ERC needs to focus.  You can be certain that the experts involved in the evaluation will know if the work is original or not or whether or not it is being done already somewhere in the field by a researcher that you may not have heard of.  In fact, perhaps the most common comment  you see in evaluation feedback is simply that the work is not original.

So, you need to work really hard in the state-of-the-art section to set up the gaps (once again, this is a rhetorical exercise to a very great extent) and point clearly to them. Then the objectives statements are much simpler as you’ll be able to say with confidence that for the first time this new capacity and power will be delivered to other researchers in the field.  This means, of course, that the objectives need to be viewed very pragmatically – you need to fill gaps to be original and be willing to shift and modify the project you thought you would write and would really like to do.  If the state-of-the-art says that there is a bigger chance of a breakthrough in a field that you are also credible in and which is less well trodden then you might, for purely pragmatic reasons, develop you work in that direction to give you the biggest chance of creating a high impact project with fewer competitors.  Choosing the objectives is, in the end, is a balancing act between what you’d like to sell and what is likely to be most saleable.  This pragmatic approach to finding the ‘sweet spot’ of saleable objectives will be dealt with in more detail in later posts.