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Ambition alone is not enough

Image: MIKI Yoshihito [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Without operational credibility even the brightest ideas will fail

Like Bhismadev Chakrabarti, profiled previously in Funding Insight, Andrew Futter, associate professor of international politics at the University of Leicester, was among the 50 UK-based researchers to win a European Research Council Consolidator Grant in December 2019.

With the 2020 round of ERC Consolidator Grants now closed to applications and UK-based researchers’ ability to participate in 2021 hanging in the balance of Brexit negotiations, Futter may be one of the last UK-based researchers to benefit from ERC funding. However, as for Chakrabarti, the insights that he learned from his successful bid apply to all those lining up big individual bids, whether those end up targeting the ERC or one of the schemes that the UK government has suggested would replace EU funding.

Strategic advantage

For Futter, the key takeaway from his win relates to credibility when proposing an ambitious project. He had been knocked back by the council before—a “very similar project” to his Consolidator Grant was rejected as a Starter Grant in 2018.

He reached the interview stage with his Starter Grant application and is fairly sure it did not go further because of the panel’s doubts that he could actually pull off the work. Futter had to overcome a particularly tricky obstacle in that regard. His project focuses on the development of new technologies and their effect on worldwide nuclear weapons policy.

“A lot of the questions [in the Starter Grant interview] focused on my data-collection methods because I wanted to get national security information,” Futter says. “I’m not sure I made that bit of the original project as watertight and convincing as it could have been.”

Top secret

This time he dealt head-on with the fact that officials can be understandably prickly when it comes to researchers probing their nuclear weapons capabilities. He convinced the panel that the best way to get the authorities to play ball was to be “totally transparent about what the project is and isn’t trying to get” from policymakers and that his questions were entirely focused on policy, rather than operational details.

Similarly, Futter says he suspects many big grant proposals fall down on their mechanics, logistics and methodology: “It’s not that the idea isn’t great and the research could be really significant, it’s the failure to convince the reviewers that it’s doable and that every aspect has been thought out.”

Accordingly, he spent much of his time when working up the grant on his project and personnel management plans in order to convince the panel that everything was in place. 

By breaking his five-year project up into discrete work packages—each with its own questions, aims, timelines, outputs and activities—Futter made his ambitious proposal easier to manage and understand. 

He knew that his bid would also be considered in terms of its contribution to wider scientific culture and used his experiences as a PhD student to guide him when it came to making sure the students on the project would benefit from it, via publications, teaching experience, credit and project management experience. 

“It’s thinking about managing people, about managing their career aspirations as well as the needs of the project,” he says.

Arms race

Of course, when it comes to big bids, the central idea is crucial. “You have to make a really big point of why this is paradigm shifting, why it’s really transformative, why now, why you, why this is the big idea,” Futter says.

This was not hard for him. “This project will be the first-ever conceptualisation of what I think is a fundamental change in nuclear politics,” Futter explains. “States are developing ever-more-sophisticated non-nuclear weaponry. The argument of the project is essentially that in this new technological context we have to go back and rethink the stuff we think we know about nuclear politics: deterrence, arms control, proliferation and even disarmament.”

Even armed with such a potent idea, though, Futter says he knew he would have to work at communicating it persuasively. “It’s about convincing the reviewers, who are probably going to see a hundred really interesting proposals, why yours is best, why yours has to be done, why it has to be funded by the ERC and why you’re the person to do it.”

To help with the writing, Futter secured some money from Leicester to pay for the services of grant-writing consultant Andrew Derrington, author of The Research Funding Toolkit. One trick he picked up from Derrington is that putting the concluding sentence of a paragraph first can often give text a punchier feel (although doing this too much can be a mistake).

Futter does not think Brexit made a great deal of difference to the evaluation of his proposal and in fact the project’s nature may have appealed to the EU’s perception of itself as a peace-broker. While he doesn’t think one project will bring about world peace, he hopes his is a step in the right direction. “If we don’t understand the problems properly then we’re not going to find any solutions any time soon,” he concludes. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com