If you only read one thing here then read this. In just a few words we will try to boil down the lessons we have learned from our project work over the years and set out here the things that we hear ourselves saying most often. The ideas may seem completely obvious but in practice these easy good practice guidelines are not followed by the majority of researchers and the bad practice habits here are all too common. Individually, probably, they won’t be fatal to the chances of winning (although some, in fact, are). However, small errors accumulate then the proposal sinks down the ranking and out of contention for funding all as a result of small things that are easily avoided. So, we offer the points below as the most condensed proposal writing (with an emphasis on ERC) course that we can devise.
- Follow the letter of the law – do exactly what they ask, in the order they ask for it and everything that they set down in the rules. There is no point whatsoever in trying to interpret the details of the call, playing them back to the funder in a version more suitable to your project or to your vision of what research should be like. It is very simple – these people have the cash and you want to get hold of it and so you must play the game they dictate in very great detail. The closer you get to perfect conformity with the rules the closer you will get to winning. You may think this doesn’t need to be said – well, it does, as more often than you would imagine researchers write the proposals that they want to write rather than the ones the funders are hoping to fund.
- Abide by the spirit of the law too – each programme has an underpinning approach and method, its own version of how science and development works and where along the spectrum between applied and basic research it sits and this can be seen in the supporting documentation quite clearly and the proposal needs to demonstrate conformity with this vision as clearly as with the written rules of the game. So, for example, the ERC is single researcher-driven, risky, basic research that pushes at the frontiers of knowledge to open up the field for the benefit, in the first instance, of others researchers – this is the vision of the world that the programme chooses to pursue. And yet, too often proposals are team-based, incremental and applied which makes it almost impossible to win.
- Proposals are sales documents – whether we like it or not when we start to write a proposal we are engaged in selling. There is so much money at stake and so many other benefits flow from winning projects that it really has become a dog eat dog environment and we are not going to win on excellent science alone. Writing proposals should not be confused with other types of academic writing where modesty and caution are correctly prized and as with most selling tasks we need to lead with the benefits that the work will deliver rather than the processes and activities that we’ll do. Some academic cultures in Europe are still not comfortable with the idea of mixing academic work with selling stuff – but they have no choice but to come round to the idea and reconcile themselves to this often awkward marriage. I strongly suspect that the different success rates that we see across the EU in the different programmes are explained at least as much by excellence in presentation and sales as by differences in the quality of the science.
- Start with ‘why’ the project is important – it is far easier to sell projects by leading on the differences that it will make, the sustainable beneficial effects that you are going to be bringing about, how exactly the world will be a better place and why that is really important right now, something that can’t be missed! The approaches and methods that the project will employ are the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ questions which are, in fact, relatively less important in the minds of funders. EU science is so uniformly excellent that it is hard to differentiate projects on the quality of the work that they will do and much easier to stand out from the crowd by packaging that science up to bring about change and to sell the project on effects, benefits and differences. And yet, nearly all proposals start and many also end on the descriptions of what the researchers will do as if the funding were money to simply do stuff. It is very easy to stand head and shoulders above the competition simply by leading on changes and bringing in activities to demonstrate how the effects will be created rather than simply describing what will be done with very little in the way of persuasive explanation of why this is critical at this moment in time.
- Start with the objectives – the objectives are the place where you set out the benefits that the project will create. ‘For the first time the world will be different in these quantifiable and verifiable ways and it will benefit these people by the second year of our work’ is the kind of underpinning idea that every objective statement should be based upon. Once three objectives are in place – three is the magic number for EU projects! – then the way in which they will be reached can be decided quickly and quite easily as once you know where you are going it is fairly straightforward to describe how to get there. But, without any clear end point in mind it is very common to get so caught up in thinking about processes and activities that project purpose never gets clarified and the funders never get to learn why the work is important and urgent but only that lots of things will get done if they hand over the cash: not an easy case to make and perhaps the most common reason for failure.
All these points are unpacked in great detail in the blog posts in the section below and we hope you find time to explore them more or to get in contact for discussion of any aspect of our work on proposals.