Use the concepts and words provided in the guide and evaluation criteria

It is important to make the proposal as easy as possible for the evaluator to read– in fact, the ideal text is one that hardly needs to be read at all but rather carries the reader painlessly and seamlessly through the phases of the presentation. This is an aspect of the work that is too often overlooked by researchers and some proposals are very heavy going indeed with the reader having to do lots of the work to uncover what the thing is actually about – this is often a fatal error to make. The question of writing style in ERC proposals is a fairly large and complex one – or at least my reading of around 350 of them indicates that it is and I’ll be pulling at some of the most important threads from that topic in future posts.

Of course, the fact that not all proposers are first-language English writers does make a difference as the control of the very fine nuances of a language is really tough to achieve – as my own encounters in languages other than English have taught me (and many more such slippery experiences in English itself have reinforced). So, while recognising that controlling the language in the proposal is a challenge I am still sometimes surprised just how creative some writers are in inventing their own rather confusing vocabulary which creates a barrier to quick reading rather than using the words and ideas that are everywhere in the ERC material.

To get a very fine polish on the language does take a lot of effort but to get the basics in place to make it transparent and open to quick and accurate evaluation is simple and basically means using the tools that are provided by the ERC as the starting point – in fact, they are all I suggest you really need to do the job. The last post was about following the rules both in letter and in spirit and the aim of this post is simply to recommend using the concepts set out in the material about the calls so that the reader can see why this is a good ERC proposal without having to do any thinking work about what the basic concepts mean.

The ERC vocabulary is pretty clear and precise and is fairly easy to use to structure the proposal and should be used to do so. In place of the simple set of ideas, in particular around the critical sections of state-of-the-art and objectives there are quite a lot of alternative ideas inserted. The sections of state-of-the-art and objectives are particularly prone to being re-read and re-interpreted, I assume, because the other headings about methods and resources are even clearer and resist very much creative over-writing.

In the state-of-the-art and objectives section I have seen, quite often, ‘motivation’ used as a cover-all heading for both of these quite distinct parts of the project. ‘Motivation’ seems often to contain quite a lot of general personal detail about how the research has reached the stage of finding certain fairly loosely described phenomena interesting and what in general the project is going to do and is mostly too biographical to the job needed which is to set the intended achievements of the project in very detailed context. Along with ‘motivation’ there are quite a few uses of ‘ambitions’, which again is not precise enough to do the job that the section of state-of-the-art and objectives is doing. And there are a number of variations on the phrase ‘interesting research topics’ which is too vague to carry to argument and again misses the point of the section which is to nail down exactly what the gaps are in the existing state-of-the-art, how this project is going to fill these critical gaps and the differences and benefits that will be delivered when these end points are reached.

Another common interpretation of objectives is the use of the heading ‘hypotheses’ which is very closely related to the idea of objectives but still doesn’t, in my view, do the same job and still creates sufficient confusion in the mind of the reader to become a barrier to quick and effective evaluation. Hypotheses, very briefly, are more likely to be linked closely to the research questions that will be addressed and sit somewhere between questions and objectives in the wider logic of project planning (although not mentioned at all in ERC project material) They are a mechanism for clarifying the research questions and testing to see if they are answered or not e.g., hypothesis testing might confirm or refute statements that findings did not occur by chance alone.

Objectives are one step up the hierarchy or project logic as they are the effects clusters of results reached through using hypotheses as tools to organise and answer research questions ie., they are the sustainable benefits, the achievements, differences and the purpose of the project. So, I’d argue that hypotheses are probably more likely to be dealt with as aspects of the method in the schema we are working with in ERC projects. If not in the methods section, then perhaps as supporting statements about the objectives as far as they lead to concrete results that could be included in the objectives statement or descriptions as verifiable indicators of when the objectives can be shown to have been reached. However, I would argue that they are not the right idea to carry to weight of this key section of the work which is about project purpose – in fact, we are given the idea to do that job in the template, it is the word objective, which I recommend everyone sticks with.

What exactly objectives are they are and how they can be best presented for maximum effect is beyond the scope of this post and will form the basis for later posts in this series. Suffice it to say here that the more than any other section the objectives and state-of-the-art part is critical because this, for all practical purposes, is an objectives-driven research programme and, therefore, this is the critical win/lose section of the work and needs to be really well done and too often isn’t. It seems to me that it is much easier to sell a project here based around clear and measurable objectives (testing hypotheses as part of that) than it is to succeed with exploratory research which is driven by discovery with less well formulated end points in mind or any other mode or research activity.

Which means, as an aside, that the high risk/high gain equation that we read so much about is necessarily compromised and not quite as important as it seems, which is shown to be true in practice in my experience where the best projects have objectives that make the research uncomfortable at the limits of knowledge but are not blind leaps into terra incognita. Which all means that the objectives had better be done well or you face an uphill struggle. However, all this, as I said, is beyond the ambition of the present post and will be covered in later ones. Here all I will recommend is that proposers don’t go to the effort of using any other concepts and words than the ones that are already provided, they are good ones and more importantly they are the ones the evaluator has in mind.