1% makes a difference

I have just completed an intensive three month period of work in which I reviewed quite a number of Advanced Grant and Starting Grant proposals.  And, as usual some new things came to light alongside the familiar problems that I have dealt with in the other posts in this blog.  The standard of the work I have been looking at has been very high and I found myself making the same general recommendation over and again – so it seems like a good topic for a new post after a slight pause in posting during the busiest period of work.

What I was repeating was a fairly simple but important idea about making the proposals as tight and as competitive as possible in all aspects right down to the very last details that are easily overlooked in the rush of preparing the work or in the rush of relief that it appears to be finally completed.  I always imagine a scene (which must take place in some form or other) where there is a line being drawn in the list of candidates who could be funded (as there must be at some moment) which separates those who get the cash from those who don’t.  I can’t imagine that it is purely science quality that separates the winners and losers at this stage and, in fact, I have been told by ERC officers that at the margins they are never completely certain that they can judge which proposals are better than others that are, to all intents and purposes, equally good.  In the end, there is always some degree of ‘finger in the air’ work  in the drawing of the boundary which is always going to be contested and uncertain to some extent – as all good boundaries must be.

So, researchers need to give themselves every possible chance of getting over the line and it is useful to imagine their proposal as falling right at it to prompt them to think about what they can do to make sure that theirs is promoted over and above the almost identically valuable work of another researcher.  Or, I would suggest, think what might give their work the edge even over and above the work of a researcher whose science might even be more radical than theirs but which is presented in a way that makes the ideas difficult to get at or the presentation in some way or another alienating to the reader.

One way of making the proposal as competitive as possible is to consider an idea from sports coaching which was made popular by the British cycling team manager in the preparation for the 2012 Olympic games.  In general, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of using ideas from the world of sport to explain complex problems of writing and thinking; too often all we find are rather facile sets of over optimistic buzzwords and assertions that add very little and aren’t appropriate to the job of thinking and arguing which is at the heart of the task of developing a proposal.  However, in this case I’ll make an exception because I think it illustrates well what I try to say to people about imagining their proposal teetering between the panel’s ‘yes’ or its ‘no’ and about the ways to ensure that they really have done everything possible to make the decision come out in their favour.

I have been suggesting to researchers (but not using these words) that they think about working through the proposal to ensure that they have maximised the “aggregation of marginal gains” which the cycling manager explained as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do”.  The idea is that if the team were to improve every area related to cycling by just 1 percent then the accumulated gain would be significant and potentially decisive.

In cycling this means some fairly obvious things about the best bike seats, nutrition, the weight of bike components etc. And it also means some less obvious things such as the finding the best pillows and mattresses to ensure that the athletes got a good night’s sleep and teaching the riders about how to wash their hands most effectively to minimise the risk of infection.

These tiny improvements in things that might seem to be at first glance unrelated to success in cycling but are part of the greater ‘economy’ of behaviours related to winning were overlooked by almost everyone else in the sport but were the subject of obsessive scrutiny and each was looked at carefully to squeeze out a 1 percent improvement.  When all these small improvements are aggregated they might lead to a one percent improvement in average performance or even less which over time will lead to better performance than teams who don’t make these incremental gains or slip into bad habits and whose performance falls back without them even realising why.

The improvements are mostly small, often quite invisible and always easy to do but if enough of them are made it gives a slight edge and the difference between winning and losing in sport, as in the ERC, in fact, can be very slight indeed.  The cycling team reached their targets much more quickly and more spectacularly than they had anticipated – the story of Tour de France wins and Olympic golds can be found by those who might be interested in that kind of thing.  But I’ll conclude this post by trying to pick out from that what might be interesting the writers in the ERC programmes and for other proposal writers in all competitive funding regimes.

There are some obvious things that need to be right about winning proposals as there are about winning bikes and winning riders.  You need to have all the parts in the right order, you need to be offering them a proposal that is recognisably an ERC entity i.e., individual researcher driven, you need to at least gesture towards the idea of radical and groundbreaking work rather than giving them a rolling out of department agendas or a plan for incremental development in your own private research trajectory however interesting it might appear.  At one stage down from this you need to offer them the right stuff at the level of ideas that make these proposals very distinctively ERC ones.  For example, and it is a crucial example, you need to show that this is ‘objectives driven’ or ‘objectives oriented’ research as that is what they are buying here rather than process focused work or a proposal designed to deliver an interesting cluster of results.  So, the objectives drive the work and this needs to be very evident – the research sets up the state-of-the-art argument, shows the gaps and sets out the objectives which will fill these and move the whole field some significant way forward.

However, even if these objectives are carefully crafted I find that we might just push them that little bit harder to get the presentation absolutely right and I am certain that it worth taking the pains to do this as it adds just that little extra clarity and precision.  Typically, even when the objectives are fairly well refined and are not simply a statement of process (which is often how they start off i.e., ‘my objective 1 is to do this or that experiment which will lead to a new database’)  they can still be polished a little more with the aim of making them as perfect as possible and more strictly objective-like.

So, again quite typically in fairly well written objectives the process or results will precede the benefit and new power to control or predict phenomena or systems.  So, we’ll see in even quite well done objectives statements that ‘my objective 1 is to carry out this and that experiment which will create this new database which will give me the power to do these wonderful new things for science and make this and that difference to the field’.  This is more or less ok, of course.  However, from the perspective of aggregating marginal gains I think it would be better to lead on the ‘why’ aspects of the statements, the benefits, the effects and the new powers that arise and to which target group and to which degree of accuracy (i.e., ‘for the first time I will be able to control/predict/judge/evaluate etc. this and that system to this precise degree so that this and that this will open this and that new horizon for researchers in the field’).  The objective of any project is to make a better future and so better to lead on the effects of the work rather than on the processes of the work – it simply makes for harder-hitting statements which ring truer which will in some instances make a difference at the margins of the evaluation process.

There is a whole long list of things like this which I draw attention to during the proposal review process, all small, all easy to take care of.  There are very basic things around making it possible to read, for instance, with paragraph breaks and plenty of sub-headings and signposts for the reader so that they can find their way through quickly – I still see a good number of unbroken page-long blocks of text which is hard going and might make a difference at the margin.

Another very common easy place to gain a marginal advantage is in the discussion of risk. Nearly everyone mentions it – they sense it is part of the  ERC game to do so – but almost no one makes any sense of it as it is simply not part of everyday practice of most researchers and this section ends up as a paragraph or two of vague assertions about how risky it all is but worth it too.  However, a quick search on ‘risk table’ or ‘risk management’ will bring up endless simple options for presenting risk and for discussing it in meaningful detail – in particular, I think, to present it using a percentage figure to assess how likely it is to happen and what the consequences are if it does are the absolute minimum for a useful section even in the B1.

The list of small issues is long, but the general idea is that each writer should check at every stage of the writing process to make sure that the easy but apparently inconsequential things are all taken care of – the effect will be to make the work that little bit more transparent and easy to evaluate and discuss and defend and this might come in very handy on the margins of funding.

I’ll end by referring back to the cycling team and promise not to mention sport again, ever.  They devised the following motivational motto and had it printed on team clothing and on every bike.  It is interesting I think because it puts us right at the line between winners and losers which is where each researcher would be wise to think of themselves as they write to motivate themselves to ensure that every little thing is done to the highest possible level and that nothing is left to chance or to faith in the good will and patience and understanding of the evaluator.

This is the line.

The line between winning and losing.

Between failure and success.

Between good and great.

Between dreaming and believing.

Between convention and innovation.

Between head and heart.

It is a fine line.

It challenges everything we do.

And we ride it every day.