Remember that proposals are about doing things with words

I have been reminded again of a number of things as we begin to look in detail at proposals being written for the latest call and I’ll try to catch them in posts before they escape from my mind – there are so many aspects to writing a good proposal that it is not always easy to wrestle them down and separate them out but it is important to try to do so, I think.  These posts will be a bit shorter than previous ones as the points I want to make are quite simple.

I have written in past posts about the difference between the writing needed for a strong proposal and the writing that most people who write the proposals spend most of the rest of their lives doing.  I have tried to touch on the difficulties that the clash of these different writing and thinking regimes brings with it – there are earlier posts on that, in particular on the issues of inductive and deductive thinking that need to be used a different moments of the proposal.

Suffice it to say here that writing a proposal is different in key ways to writing a book or a writing and academic paper and it has nothing to do with the space available for thinking.  In fact, it is to do with the categories of thinking and writing that need to be brought to bear in each context if the job is to be completed successfully – and of course, the success criteria are different too with one very obviously involving cash, which always makes everything quite different and generally means that the writer will need to be a bit more aggressive and ruthless than the normally modest academic demeanour allows for.

But I am finding pretty often still that many researchers approach the writing of a proposal as they would the writing of a paper and this leads to a number of quite serious problems, one or two of them the kind of category errors that make it very difficult for them to win in the particular game in which they are trying to compete.

The job of the proposal is to do something, it is some kind of tool, a sort of a weapon which is wielded by the writer to perform a task firstly of engagement, then of persuasion and finally to prise open the lid of the coffer to set the money flowing – it has no other task, no other task whatsoever.

And at the core of it in the objectives the writer is making promises to set off on a course of action to alter the state of the world for the better, we hope (with the world being the corner the research field in which the researcher is going to be working).  The proposal is therefore, basically, a strong first person promissory note and at its core are clearly stated promises.  Promises are a particular kind of language act and I think it is partly this peculiarity that sets the proposal writing apart so distinctly from most of the other writing that scientists do.

To cast a bit of light on what kind of writing I think it is I will, as I have often done in other posts, grab at some ideas from a body of work not directly related to science, science writing or even the philosophy of science.

The philosopher John Austin helped introduce and clarify the idea of ‘performative utterances’ and it is this class of statement that I think might be helpful when thinking about what kind of writing proposals actually are.  Performative utterances are statements that do not describe action but rather in saying what I do I perform the action.  The examples Austin gives are simple: “When I say ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ I do not describe the christening ceremony, I actually perform the christening; and when I say ‘I do’ (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), I am not reporting on a marriage, I am indulging in it.”.

This is operative language, these are verbal acts and in the right context they amount to the performance of an action.  These statements do not report facts and they are not themselves either true or false.  They enact commitments as they are said or written, they are commissive utterances, in fact.

An example Austin gives that takes us one step closer to proposal writing is ‘I am prepared to sell you my car for 750 euro’ (we’ll say euros, given that, perhaps, not so many UK readers will be competing in ERC in future years and so the original use of pounds might not be helpful). The owner of the car creates a situation where a contract can be brought into existence by the other party’s acceptance.  This promise to sell a particular thing at a certain price is not true or false, it does not have a truth value and if it turns out not to happen then it was not untrue but rather ‘infelicitous’ as Austin says.  The form of the promise that commits the person who utters it is not even voided if the terms are not kept to, all we can say is that it was given in bad faith.

By making promises the proposal actually sets up the situation where a contract can be brought into existence if the other party accepts the deal.  Therefore, the clearer the promise, the simpler the terms the easier it is for them to buy it.  In fact, it is likely that the performative promises that we make in ERC proposals are all of the kind that Austin draws attention to in the car selling example i.e., they are all intended to bring a contract into being and to bring the ideas to life, this is the act they are performing as they are written.

All this, then, is perhaps a slightly odd way to get to the simple point that the objectives are the bit of the project where the research stands up and takes responsibility for her work, for committing to a course of action for delivering the effects, for altering the world: and this is done by a promise best of all – it is the strongest and most effective formula of all possible commissive utterances.

Of course, we can put to one side the complex and interesting facts that the researcher is committing to a future that they can’t really promise to control, in fact, which by definition escapes complete control.  We might find a test tube blows up and kills the poor old researcher or there might not be enough time and money after all.  And, of course, too on the funder’s side, there is no real way of knowing if the researcher ‘really means it’ and will fulfil the promise made.  These risks are in fact preconditions of making promises and haunt them all – but we can ignore all of this.  Just act as if you are making a strong promise and setting it up as the basis of a contract that you will carry through to the end.  Far better this than some vague description of a result or an activity that find their way too often into the objectives section of proposals.

Only through a promise does the researcher take the plunge, not only does set out their intention but by performing this ritual she stakes something, puts his reputation on the line, takes a risk, sticks her neck out – which, we all know, ERC proposals are all supposed to be about.  As we commit ourselves in the act of making these statements to a course of action we had better be sure that these are feasible – and it is making these critical statements credible that has been the topic of a flurry of recent posts of objectives which now might be thought about as a group on how to make a good promise.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that each objective starts with or even contains the word ‘promise’ – the same job can be done implicitly – ‘I will sell you my car for 750 euro’ is a promise implicitly set out and is the strongest basis for a contract and in the end it is a contract that we are in search of when writing these proposals.  The search for a contract is why we put pen to paper in the first place and anyone who has any other idea about why they might do it (I have heard plenty) could get to that other end quicker and better by spending their time doing something else entirely.  Promises are what make the proposal fundable. The objectives are promises, make it obvious.