Writing the objectives: ‘Don’t peer: interfere’!

The objectives are such a critical part of the proposal that I’ll continue looking at how they can be done well and quickly in this post.  The topic of writing objectives is dealt with in a number of other posts in this blog, for example how to write them SMARTly or FINER – it really is the part of the proposal that makes the most difference between being funded and not and because of this pivotal role it is worth dwelling on and lavishing some careful thought on.  I am going to use some ideas from the philosophy of science in this blog which I think throw a lot of light on what the most successful ERC objectives statements are like.  Looking at an apparently unconnected body of ideas might seem a distraction from the business in hand which is the very practical task of writing and making a proposal: but it isn’t.

The ERC is a unique programme in the realm of EU funding and underpinning it is a very distinctive set of ideas about what research is, about what the role of the researcher is and about what science knowledge and what valuable new science knowledge is and how it can be or should be made.  We are stuck whether we like it or not with a lot of presuppositions and assumptions which make the ERC what it is and the better we understand them the better we’ll be able to play this particular game.  It is also worth understanding how the ERC frames and creates its vision of science and scientific activity because this rather directly influences the allocation of large amounts of cash across the EU, attracts scientists into the EU and can advance or retard the career of researchers in quite significant ways.

It would be great if the underpinning ideas about science and research and knowledge were better unpacked somewhere and the consequences of these assumptions more clearly and publicly discussed (I am available to do that analysis should anyone from ERC be reading!).  However, in the meantime I am going to take a look at one important aspect of the objectives statements in ERC proposals and, as I mentioned, read that alongside some thoughts from philosophy of science to throw a bit of new light on the topic and begin to open up some perspectives on what the ERC is trying to do with these programmes and how best to write well to access them successfully.

If we look (in very simplified terms) how the philosopher of science Ian Hacking writes about science practices and what kind of knowledge it produces then we might begin to understand why writing ERC objectives in one particular way is likely to be the most competitive.

In his1983 book ‘Representing and Intervening’  Hacking encourages the scientist – “Don’t just peer: interfere”.  We don’t see through a microscope, we see with a microscope, he argues – by using the instruments of science we are able to create and manipulate a world that we cannot see without it.  What matters is what we can do to the specimen under the microscope.  Indeed it is the power to use unobservable entities (which I take to mean unobservable as that which is over the horizon of knowledge as well as that which is unobservably small) that convinces us that they are there.

Even the objects of everyday life are only real to use because of what we do with them, what we do to them and what they do to us.  We are completely convinced of the reality of scientific entities, of new knowledge, of new powers when we can reliably use them in planned and measurable ways in devices or demonstrations that use the casual properties of the new scientific entity to interfere, to make a difference to other parts of the research field in which we are working.  In a nutshell scientific entities partly created in the process of experimentation and are real to the extent that we can do something with them.  If you can manipulate them, then they are real, ‘manipulative success’ is the criterion to judge the reality of scientific entities

To link this sketch of a complex idea to the ERC is worth the slight processes of hammering and forcing that is necessary, but the idea of ‘peering’ – of looking in, looking at, observing, examining, maybe describing is helpful in understanding the problems of objectives in many ERC proposals.  And it seems to be so common in all national scientific cultures in the EU (I have seen lots of proposals from all member states) that it must be linked to something in the structure of scientific thinking and how scientists learn it and write about it currently.

Far too often the objectives statements in ERC proposals are abandoned at this level of ‘peering’, of looking through the microscope or the other instruments and methods and processes that the research is going to bring to bear in the proposed project.  It makes the proposal seem like a long list of activities tied to a budget i.e., I want this money to do these things.  Often there is very little argumentation to explain why these things are important or what they will lead on to i.e., such a proposal is impossible to evaluate. And one main reason the objectives are so abandoned is lack of confidence on the part of the researcher because as soon as I enter into dialogue about the creative process of looking and describing and the consequences of it then the they are always able to come up with statements that make the objectives more robust and more complete.

Or, in many other cases the results of the project are put in place of the objectives so that what the project will make or observe or describe is put in the position of ultimate importance in the work and made the reason for it to be supported.  So, we learn about what is going to be created or what hypothetical entities are going to be gestured at but we mostly learning nothing about what will bring them to life, what can be done with them, what difference they will make, how they will be manipulated and to what effect.  We end up with objectives statements that ultimately boil down to the claim that the researcher needs money to do this stuff and produce this stuff.  But if we take Hackings ideas on board here we can argue that this is only part of the story and not necessarily the most interesting or important part of it.

I spend a lot to time dealing with this problem and the problem is in fact that the statements are not complete in quite a deep sense, they are only fragments of ideas, only gestures at new knowledge, they are, in effect, observations and recordings and new things glimpsed by peering down the microscope. But they are not about the effects of these new powers of seeing, there is nothing about the ‘interfering’ part of the deal, and so they are not fully formed ideas and not fully formed objectives statements either, they simply can’t be.

I am convinced that effective ERC objectives statements – as well, in fact, as any other project objectives, must contain details about the way in which the entities described will be manipulated as the best or only way of showing that they are real, that they are what they say they are, that they live up to their name, that they do what they say and say what they do.  In fact, it is impossible to see how even fairly simple results can be named without this information about what they will do, let alone the more complex and critical objectives statements which must contain it by definition.

So, we see lots of statements such as ‘the first objective is to create a database which will contain….’ – it seems barely credible that that is set out as an objective but it is, all the time.  But even as a result we can’t know this entity because a database actually has to be able to do something for it to be what it claims to be, for us to know that it is what it says it is.  Otherwise, it is simply a file on a computer – there must be some effect part of the statement, some benefit aspects to the thing otherwise it doesn’t exist as a thing at all, or at least not the thing the researcher is trying to tell us it is and, so, is a lot harder to sell to a funder which is the main point I am interested in here.  The ERC aren’t buying new information, new data, or even new knowledge if it is not animated in such as way that we can see what on earth it is.

And when we get to the stage of the objectives which are the results of having the results then the instrumental aspects of the statements become even more important in the job of selling the new ideas.  To move past the simple restatement of the results or groups of results we must immediately start thinking and writing and persuading the reader of the importance of what these clusters of new effects mean, what they can do, how will benefit, how much better it is than before.

We must begin to argue that the sum total of the results is greater than the sum of the parts – together they must be able to create beneficial effects in other areas of science, to be used as tools for opening other research horizons and solving other apparently intractable research problems.  A pile of results has almost no value as an objective: they are not self evidently important and the evaluator simply hasn’t got the time to build them into an entity that means something – this is the core job that needs to be done by the proposal.

At objective statement level we need to downplay the contribution to theory, to downplay the production of results and play up the beneficial effects that the project will bring as this is the only way of knowing that the promises that the project makes are worth buying. An objective statement is actually very simply that I will promise to be able to do this and this and that to this degree of accuracy for the benefit of this audience and the results that prove that this will exist will be these things and they will perform and look like this and that and the other.  The objectives are the place in the proposal where we describe the beneficial interference that this work will have on other areas of science and on nature – they are the beating heart of the work.

In fact, it is only by the effects that we’ll know the importance of the project’s promises as it is a futural in all its important aspects, it is science fiction in fact, and we need to bring it to life as much as possible to make it buyable.  These statements become saleable to the extent that they show what the effects will be, it is the only way we can know them at all.  If end points of the project are things that can’t be manipulated then those end points are not going to exist and it is a pretty tough sell to peddle things which not only don’t currently but won’t ever exist in ways that we can measure and speak about as effects and benefits.  I think that this is why the idea of ‘prediction’ and ‘control’ are so helpful in objectives statements – they are clearly right at the heart of science in all its forms – and should be in all objective statements in one way or another as I will explain in another post in the near future.

So, in the ERC we want less peering and more interfering – just so long as we describe exactly why that interference is necessary right now, what exactly it will look like when it is made successfully and who will benefit.  The ERC asks for a very simple kind of realist objective statements – the winners tend to give them these but to see it well done is surprisingly rare.  Everyone else seems much happier to list results and activities – but as have said often, it is possible to transform these statements to make them far more competitive and it is the biggest boost that anyone can give to their proposal and will make it instantly stand out from the crowd.