Objectives: make smart promises

Making promises is a critically important thing to do in the section on the objectives which forms the core of the ERC proposal.  This post will look at a very simple way of checking that they have the right characteristics to make them as persuasive and saleable as possible.  Other aspects of writing objectives are covered in discussions of writing backwards, thinking FINER and making sure that we are making promises about something new in a very strong sense.

I’ll refer to the very well worn objectives-setting acronym, SMART.  There are several different versions and I’ll pick through them here quickly so that you can check that all objectives statements have a high level of SMART ingredients – it is an easy, quick and effective way of getting to good objectives statements.  So, I’ll run through it letter by letter and take the variants that apply to writing for the ERC.

S – specific, significant, stretching.  Get plenty of detail in there – the objectives statements can be short paragraphs and you really need to bring them to life.  Identify the precise issue in the field that you are going to address and the gap you are going to fill.  Make sure too that it is an important one, so set out consciously to find something attractive to sell.  And ensure that it pushes beyond the state-of-the-art, that it can’t currently be reached, that it stretches knowledge and your expertise to some extent – but not too much!
M- measurable.  This is critical and mostly overlooked.  But you simply need to commit to saying what the world will be like when you are done, how we will know that this new and better state has been reached, what will it be like, what will it do, what level of accuracy, what difference will it make and to who. Put some numbers in there, some indicators of benefit, some qualitative or quantitative ways that they will know that what they have bought has been delivered.  It is the same in all areas of knowledge, it is not just the preserve of the ‘hard’ sciences where, of course, it might be a bit easier to do – but this is a discipline for all researchers and all proposals.  The winners tend to have this very well controlled and precisely done as part of the strong promises they make – and the advantage of the ERC is that no one comes around to check up…although, of course, you didn’t hear that from me.

A – attainable, achievable, acceptable.  This is about positioning the proposal in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ as discussed in earlier posts.  Make sure that given the time and money involved, your experience and how this matches what is currently hot in the areas where you work and all the other forces that determine if a project will be funded come together in the proposal so that it is on the limit of what can be done but probably can be,  just over the horizon but still recognisable and not too monstrous.  It needs to be at once slightly uncomfortable but in the mainstream to a large extent, on the edges of knowledge but with clear links back to what is known and with clear pathways between the two.  A buyable challenge, a difficult balance to reach, but perfectly possible to construct.  Bear in mind that projects are made very actively, they don’t drop from the sky, not often at least.

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding.  This group amplifies the one above.  Make sure the reader will find the promises realistic given the state-of-the-art, your expertise, the time and resources of the project.  Ensure that it is linked carefully to the state-of-the-art in the field, that it is relevant to the major concerns of the research community at the moment, that it is reasonable that the offer you make will deliver the benefits described and that they are worth having, that the payoff is big enough, that the effort and money will bring with it worthwhile rewards.

T – time-based, time-bound, timely.  A complete objective statement contains a clear end point, that the benefits will have been delivered by this or that project month and not necessarily all right at the end.  It shows projects are well planned, helps with assessment of their attainability – it shows, in brief that this thing is feasible.  ‘Timely’ is slightly different and links back to the previous two groups – is this something that we really need right now to move the field forward significantly? is it the right thing to be doing now, does it build the bridges to the future across a chasm that is really causing the field to stall?  Make sure you are promising to solve a problem that the evaluators can see a clear need for – this once again links back to the idea that a good way to start thinking about writing a project is to search for timely ideas and build projects around them, to build a project designed to win very consciously, if not opportunistically rather than hoping that you can sell the next step in your current research trajectory.