Each summer it is standard for publications to produce lists of exam howlers to remind us just how woefully ignorant some of our students are at all levels. I have never seen a list of comparable statements regarding crass errors produced in grant applications, but upon occasion referees do not mince their words. Having spent much of the weekend wading through a pile of (metaphorical) paper – it is of course all electronic material now – consisting of proposals and referees’ comments, I was amused by the following two comments which leapt out of the page at me:
‘Within the case for support, the term “paradigm shift” is used (misused) twice and “step change” mentioned three times, yet it is never clear what could possibly be considered revolutionary about the proposed work. ….’
‘This is a badly written, ill-thought out and poorly developed research proposal that contains a number of serious flaws and is not firmly based on current knowledge of [the field].’
Very few referees comment specifically on the mandatory (for UK research councils) ‘pathways to impact’ statement but, given how little concrete detail of what is wanted and/or required is out there on their web pages, I thought I would proffer some personal thoughts on what not to write, and possibly the odd pointer for more positive statements that could be made by the PI (this is a fairly UK-centric post, I should say). These remarks – like those I made in a previous post about committee membership – should be taken as composite examples of the sorts of things that can go wrong, and which may stick in the committee’s minds for unfortunate reasons. I will not put any literal quotes from impact statements I have read in what follows, but the general messages will be along the lines of those I have seen, and reflecting the nature of the particular grant-giving committee I am most familiar with currently.
Many people believe the Pathways to Impact statement is an opportunity to hype their field – just the place to discuss a paradigm shift (as above) in an entirely vague and meaningless sort of way. Whatever it is they are going to do, it will solve all the ills of mankind, revolutionise the production of something or other and allow us to fly to the moon. This is not really helpful. My impression is a bit of quantification is particularly valuable – we are scientists after all – so if a new drug is going to be developed what is the size of the potential market in the UK/ the world? If the project is to solve some existing bottleneck, how big is the problem? If a new healthcare technology is being proposed, enumerate the number of sufferers who potentially could benefit. Surprisingly often a committee member will want to know about the economics, if a PI is claiming to be going to develop a potential new product, to see if it is ever going to be financially viable rather than just esoterically clever.
Turning to outreach, if the team claim they are going to visit schools as part of their activities, why not set an explicit target eg. 3 schools a year, or engage with a science festival twice during the lifetime of the grant. Most people inevitably stress what they have done in the past – perhaps they talked to a local newspaper in 2001 – whereas what strikes me as preferable is to stress what will be done in the future and ideally how it connects to the specific proposal, and that is why targets or milestones are desirable. Although it is impressive to be able to say that members of a team have presented their results to members of Parliament several times, how will they ensure they do so again?
And really it is little good saying that in the past the PI has taken out 2 patents and worked with several companies unless it is clear how patents, licensing and industrial collaboration might work in the future. What has happened in the past is clearly relevant as demonstrating, perhaps, an entrepreneurial mindset, but it is only relevant if the future trajectory appears to have been considered too. So can something more specific be said than that a department is an ‘industry-facing department’ (horrid phrase, but one that did turn up in a case I read); or that it might have had, in a vague kind of way, a long track record of industrial collaboration. Rather like my experience on the REF pilot panel when such vagueness was also frequently present, such statements are really not explicit enough to judge anything beyond a cuddly feeling that maybe the particular department has had industrialists set foot on the premises. Why not say something about what sort of industrial contribution (cash or in kind) has flowed into the department in the past, how much of it in the direction of the particular PI and what their expectations might be over the next 3 years? And to say that attempts will be made to ‘upscale production’ in the future, if the grant is successful, without explaining a mechanism and an outline indication of what success – including on financial grounds – might look like, is just a bit too fuzzy
Whatever my own personal views about the motivation that has led to the introduction of these Pathways to Impact statements and the precise form in which we are supposed to describe our activities, it does us as scientists no harm to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing. We do not have any sort of intrinsic right to do science for the fun of it, but equally some science is inevitably going to be less immediately translatable into economic worth than other projects. But we should anyhow all be thinking about what we can do to excite youngsters and the public, as well as train the personnel we will employ on grants in a variety of transferable skills, including outreach. It shouldn’t be difficult to define these outcomes. If you are about to write one of these statements do look ahead, not just quote the past however wonderful your research and activities may have been previously; do be concrete and not vague and full of hyperbole. You should consider that I and my colleagues will have read dozens of these statements over a rather short period of time in the run-up to the committee meeting, so have some thought that just maybe my eyes glaze over when faced with yet another page of statements along the lines of
This proposal aims to develop new functionalities of [insert generic technology here] to support the next generation [insert protocol here] which will transform the production of [insert your favourite molecule here]. We will concentrate, just as we always have, on writing lots of peer-reviewed papers and travelling the world to exotic places to talk to our friends at high level conferences.
I’m afraid that doesn’t cut the mustard with me.