The curious case of the ‘missing middle’

Linking back again to the slide on the simple and most common mistakes that proposers make when writing an ERC proposalVery common simple mistakes I’d like to touch on the subject that will come up again and again in these blog posts as it is a problem at many levels of the logical flow of the proposal writing and a fairly important barrier to success. In a nutshell the problem is that too many researchers won’t commit to saying what difference their work will make when it is complete. It is a question closely related to the writing of objectives which was touched on in the ohter posts and which will be dealt with in later posts fairly often as it is at the core of a good and competitive ERC submission.

Too many proposals display what I have come to think of as the ‘problem of the missing middle’ and it is possible to read right through very attentively (as I always do when working on a client assignment) and never find out what difference the researcher is promising to make. Commonly there will be a first section on the field of research in general and some discussion of background issues there, perhaps something about the ‘motivation’ of the researcher (as discussed in the post above) and possibly some discussion of some questions or problems that might form the basis of a proposal. And then quite often the work jumps down to the methodology section where all researchers feel much more confident and at home – of course, all good scientists can speak about what they will do in great detail and at great length and it is rare that the methods are not up to date and robust (whether they are innovative or not is another question slightly beyond the scope of this post but important in itself as lately I have seen more comments coming back from reviewers about innovation in methods).

So, what I often read are introductory statements, outlines of questions and then methods and resources (this is the part where the proposals are most confident of all). And it is possible to get to the end without a clear idea of why this particular project is one that will make a difference in the field and one that needs to be funded. The high level issue here that is one I will come back to again and again is that many researchers have difficulty moving from a discussion of the ‘what’ parts of the work – what the field is, what the general issues are, what methods can be used to do the work and what resources are needed to the more difficult matter of ‘why’ this work is urgent, beneficial, better than other work in the field, groundbreaking etc. Researchers are clearly not, for the most part, in their everyday activities and in the writing they commonly do used to the need to focus on the purpose of the work and to ‘sell’ their ideas, however lightly. And here is where the rigours of writing proposals and the practice of normal academic writing are slightly out of joint most obviously as few researchers are commonly asked to explain the importance of their work in the course of their normal job but in proposals it become probably the decisive factor in success, so the quicker they can move from the ‘what’ mindset to the ‘why’ one the stronger their proposals will become in my view.

The whole question of ‘selling’ is one that needs to be addressed separately as it needs to be delicately done, but done nonetheless. In fact, along with the language advantage, native English writers tend to come from academic cultures where researchers have been forced to sell ideas both internally and to external audiences beyond the institution for many years (there are plenty of examples, in fact, of the barely published but successful-funding-capturing full professor). Researchers who have been under pressure to generate external funds for many years tend to have an advantage over researchers from other places where, for example, university researchers have the security of civil service employment conditions or are in hierarchies where they don’t have control over their own career trajectories or clearly ‘own’ their own ideas but are rather part of a team under the strict leadership of senior staff.

But selling will be the topic of various posts in the coming months.
To conclude this post I’ll simply reemphasise the need the commit to making a clearly described difference in the field you are working in and to ensure that this difference is as big as it possibly can be: they are, in my view buying the differences you are promising rather than the results and activities that make up the body of many proposals. The beneficial differences you will be selling are going to be set out in the objectives statements, so they need to be very carefully crafted indeed and this I where I spend most of my time working with clients on getting the logic and balance of the project right as it is all driven by the promises in the objectives.

Avoid the common tendency to open up the proposal with a general discussion of issues and floating some questions that are current in it before moving on to methods to address these questions – this is to miss out the beating heart of the work which are the objectives carefully contextualised in the state-of-the-art. My advice is always to set the scene very quickly to locate the reader in the field and set out the overall objective to which you’ll make a contribution. By the way, the distinction between overall objective and project objectives is important, is to do with the strength of the promise being made to deliver complete solutions to project objectives rather than contributions to overall objective and will form the basis for a number of posts in this series.

After setting the scene you need to start creating the argument for the project, to move onto the job of selling the ideas and this is done by describing them as beneficial changes – in the B1 section this job will be done, in my view in the third paragraph of the first page after introducing the field in one, setting out the high level objectives in two and then hitting the reader right between the eyes in three with some concrete and ambitious objective statements. Too often you get the end of the first section on state-of-the-art and objectives and the argument falters and fades away. Three seems to be the magic number for objectives – there are probably good rhetorical reasons why that is, but that is for the future too – suffice it to say, don’t beat around the bush, locate the work and sell the differences on the first page.