It’s Machiavelli not Confucius

Writing for the ERC is a serious business with a lot at stake and you face intense competition.  If I have tried to show one thing above all else in the posts in this blog it is that it is necessary to write in a style and with a purpose that is quite different to most of the academic writing that researchers spend their time doing.

The writing for ERC has one function only and that is to persuade the evaluators that this is a project that is urgent and fundable, nothing else matters and there are no other benefits to be gained from writing proposals than winning.  Some participants or consultants will try to encourage you to think that the very act of writing stuff down is some kind of learning experience.  Well, I am sure it isn’t – the feedback tends to be poor and the time it takes to write even a bad proposal makes it too expensive to get it and not worth the effort and frustration.  Only write to win, I am convinced of this, it is soul-destroying otherwise.

In the training course that I have given around EU in recent years I try to highlight a common attitude of researchers (and that I think needs to be overcome) by referring to an idea from Confucius.  I then try to introduce some better and more winning behaviours from Machiavelli – and this is what I am going to run through here in this post.

Like Confucius too many researchers still console themselves with something like the slightly sanctimonious mantra: “Do not be concerned that you have no position, be concerned that you have what it takes to merit a position.  Do not be concerned that no one recognises you, seek that which is worth of recognition”.  These words summarise some aspects of an academic world that is fading away for good and for ill – in fact, it is the academic world that I did my own doctorate in when anything other than a mole-like interest in pursuing a line of work was considered to be a dreadful sell-out.  We are now in the era of the project, the income stream, of the manager and the bureaucrat, the unpublished but much funded professor, of redundancies and of the marginalisation of those who don’t cut the mustard.

Researchers led by this ethos at once want to play the ERC game but don’t actually want to take the steps necessary to win.  They are often unwilling to push and pull and hammer their ideas to find something that fits with the demands of the programme and be opportunistic and pragmatic about the writing process (some would even prefer failure to compromise). Sometimes they try to rewrite the rules or overlook those that are inconvenient or make up new ideas and words as if they might do the job instead. Often they just want to carry on with the line of work they are on and appear to be frustrated that the world won’t listen and sometimes make a virtue of this.  I put this down to the fact, largely, that there are some parts of the EU where the wave of cultural change about projects and funding and jobs and promotions hasn’t quite broken yet but it will and is gathering on the near horizon anyway.

This underpinning attitude leads to a certain style of writing and presentation in proposals which is not helpful at all.  It tends to be too closed and gnomic, focused on other expert readers rather than the generalists who can sometimes get their hands on these proposals.  It tends to expect that the reader will be willing to do fairly large amounts of work to see the world through the writer’s eyes.  It can, in the worst cases, lead to an attempt at coercive writing with a good sprinkling of pathos which almost tries to defy the reader not to see things as urgent and essential – and of course, they mostly (but not always, sadly) cast these texts aside as they hate to have their coats pulled on.

Much better, in my view, is to be led by virtú as theorized by Machiavelli which demands that we start above all else with a “flexible disposition” and that we are capable of varying our thinking and behaviour (and writing, in this case) as fortune and circumstances dictate.  We are playing a certain game in the ERC and we want to win at all costs and this has to determine what and how things are done.

We need to cast aside the common fatalism for proposal writers who think that game is rigged against them or simply random and use whatever tools are at hand to get the proposal forged and polished in such a way that it becomes an offer that they really can’t refuse.  We need to apply tons of drive, talent and ability towards very specific goals which in the case of the ERC can be boiled down to the objectives at the core of the project and the entity that carries them which is the rest of the rhetorical shell of the proposal.

We need to be willing to find the right objectives and write the right project and consciously search for something that they will buy if we are not lucky enough for this to be the next step in the line of work we are pursuing.  At its extreme, in fact, the difference between the daily work of the research and the work proposed to the ERC will be quite different (or as different as a credible argument can be made for, and this is quite far) in the same way that Machiavelli tells that public success and private morality are entirely separate.  The question is really here what makes a good proposal that can win not what makes for good science alone.

I think that now after a year or so of writing this blog, a careful reading will put any researcher in the position of knowing what practical steps need to be taken to get into a competitive position as long as they are an eligible candidate and approach this task with an open mind and a willingness to be pragmatic and flexible.  There is no one fated to win here or to lose, no type of science that is more suited or fields that are favoured – if you pass the eligibility test anyone can win and that is made a lot easier for those willing to cast doubt to one side and think more opportunistically and adopt a “flexible disposition” for the duration of the proposal development phase which is all it takes.