The unofficial guide to writing EU research grant proposals

For the past several years, I have been involved as an independent expert, commissioned by the European Commission, to evaluate FP7 research proposals (and more recently the Horizon 2020 program). Every time I do this, it entails reading hundreds or even thousands of pages of research proposals in a relatively short time period so good, clear and concise proposal writing would be appreciated. Yet every single time I run into many proposals that frustrate the hell out of me, either because they’re just downright bad or because they might have something there but utterly and completely fail to communicate that in the proposal.

In order to help whoever is vying for funding via these channels, I offer the following advice. Please note that this is my individual view, not explicitly or implicitly condoned by the European Commission in any way, shape or form. Also note there are several experts independently reviewing every single proposal, so just writing it so that I like it will not get you any money. In other words, this advise comes with no warranty whatsoever, YMMV and all the relevant disclaimers. But here goes:

Cut the complicated language. One often wishes the writers would just get the basics of good writing right. Writing in a complicated way and using a wide range of meaningless buzzwords is not a sign that you know your domain, nor it is a sign of intelligence. At best it’s a sign of laziness, at worst it’s an attempt to cover up the lack of any real substance. Write simply. Do not try to complicate things unnecessarily; most of the time what you’re doing is completely feasible to present in very simple terms – dump the buzzwords and the pretend-intellectualism. And, please, check that the sentences you write make sense. Because sometimes they make no sense whatsoever, or do not mean anything.

Be realistic on impacts. Too many times the applicants completely forget they are operating with finite time and resources. I know the EC asks for impact assessments, but this needs to be realistic. Any talk of “saving Europe” or similar grandiose statements through just this one research project is just unrealistic and will be treated as such.

Focus; don’t try to achieve too much. It may seem that the more goals you have in a project and that the wider they are, the better it must be. It’s not. Have a clear focus, because that’s the only way to achieve something. If you focus on everything, you’re not focusing on anything and will accomplish exactly that. This is particularly important for STREP proposals. You do NOT need to address every single element in the call.

Don’t do research for research’s sake. Anything that you attempt to do that goes beyond state-of-the-art must have an application or use somewhere. It’s not good enough to say that after you research topic X for three years, you’ll have good grounds to continue the research.

Don’t waste money – get onto the ‘lean’ boat. Just having multi-year funding from the EC doesn’t mean you can use outdated project methodologies. Two iterations over three years is not “agile”. There is also no reason for you not to borrow a page or two from the Lean Startup. The EC – really the European taxpayers – don’t like to see their money wasted any more than a VC would. Keep in mind that most of the time part of the funding comes out of your tax dollars – would you invest in your project?

Don’t waste money, part II. 15% of project funding to management overhead is unacceptable. So is proposing to buy loads of gear or services at unreasonable prices.

Learn to pitch. Something you should learn from the startups; make sure you develop a compelling pitch – why should your project be funded? Don’t bury the lead on page 78, by when the reviewers will have lost any faith in you coming up with something good. It’s essential for the abstract to be compelling and engaging.

Learn to write (English). I bet you were taught to write essays in school, and scientific articles at the university. Try to remember those lessons: Use clear layout. Break into appropriate sentences and paragraphs. Reference concisely, i.e. in a way that doesn’t interfere with reading (superscripted [21] is good, [Lastname 1, Lastname 2, publication XYZ, page B, 2010] is not.). Use graphics, but make them clear. Check the spelling. Check the grammar. Write clearly. Avoid sentences that are like 100 words long. Avoid paragraphs spanning half a page. Pay attention to layout and pagination. Check the spelling and grammar again. Make sure the sentences make sense.

Did I mention you need to check the spelling and grammar? Surprising as it may be, it turns out we can’t read minds.

If, btw, your writing or scientific writing courses did _not_ teach you these things, take a better one that does.

Be specific. Particularly when discussing what it is that you’re going to be doing beyond state-of-the-art, it’s essential that you say something more than “research” this and that. And don’t forget to be realistic, too; don’t say you’re going to achieve something awesome which is clearly unrealistic. It is, however, fine to say you will try to do something.

Don’t forget business fundamentals. You need to have a story on how your thing could be used in the “real” world; often this means involving one or more business entities that somehow need to make money. Having a pure research-platform is fine, too, if it’s justified – but “build it and they will come” usually does not go down well as a strategy. Remember to engage the relevant industry in your project.

Innovate, sometimes radically. Don’t be afraid to propose something completely different as opposed to just progressing some field in an expected, linear fashion. If you think the call has inappropriate elements – because sometimes they do – don’t be afraid to criticize them and propose alternatives.

Don’t fall for neomania, i.e. making something new just for the sake of it being new. Not everything new or even innovative is worth doing – show that your use cases are actually useful and have demand, not merely “novel”. Novelty in and of itself is valueless; don’t fall for technological solutionism either.

Test your assumptions. Another concept from the Lean Startup; too many proposals list as some their core thesis assumptions that are entirely untested. At worst they are the result of groupthink of a very unrepresentative group of researchers along the lines of “We’d love this so why wouldn’t everyone?!”. If you base your project on assumptions, you need to test and validate those assumptions early. Oh, and on a related note: Gartner or some other analyst company saying so doesn’t make it so.

Get the right team; trying to make advances in areas where the members are amateurs in and not even engaging the parties with the actual state-of-the-art technology guarantees you will not get anywhere. These are not funds purely for your internal competence development.

Don’t get stuck on the Europe bit; don’t hesitate to bring in non-European partners if you can; not all SOA is of European origin and engaging organizations outside Europe can bring substantial benefits.

Manage the management right. Think about using more modern project management tools than email and Word documents.

Keep the big picture in mind. Having experts onboard is good. Having experts who can see beyond their little domain and into the macro-level developments and understand their significance is better; you need to have an understanding of the macro-environment and trends and how they might affect what you are going to do.

Finally, don’t submit a bad proposal. It just isn’t worth it. It will not get funded and you will have caused reputational damage to all participating organizations and the people identified by submitting stupid things.

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Making (personal) sense of a disintegrating world


A lot of people – usually people who don’t actually know me – think I’m a pessimist. There are some things that even readers of this blog will know I believe in; things like inevitable catastrophic climate change, end of growth & having to come to terms with hard resource limits.

To tackle these issues, I call for – among other things – adaptation, resilience and antifragility (see footnote) because I think we’re way past the point of no return on many disasters; on climate change, remaining under +2C warming this century – or even under +4C or probably +6C – is wishful thinking, and hope alone is a very bad strategy. Yet, many expect some as yet undiscovered technology to save our collective asses. But that is hope as a strategy, or actually even worse because it lulls us to inaction while we wait for that technological saviour who in all likelihood will never come.

It’s a tragedy because that hypothetical future technology is unnecessary – or, rather, it’s only necessary if we are hell-bent on maintaining status quo on all fronts. Climate change was never a technological problem; from the moment we knew it was a problem, we knew how to solve it. And we could’ve. But we didn’t. And now it’s too late; it’s a predicament we have to deal with, not a problem we can solve.

Naturally these are not the kind of things most people enjoy hearing or even thinking about, hence the branding as a pessimist – at least I think that’s why.

I am, however, actually not a pessimist; rather, I am very optimistic by nature. You may or may not agree with even the broad strokes of my world view, and hence the basis of any actions I take; it became apparent in the previous post that a lot of people confuse “can do”, especially when combined with a “should do” with “will do”, as if the world operated in a long-term-logical manner.

But how did my view of things get to where it is today? A question I’m sure none of you particularly want an answer to, but one I will still partially answer – if for no other reasons, for my own records 🙂

The following are what I’d say are maybe the Top ten(ish) relatively recent books (in no particular order, and books because they’re the easiest resources to list here, not because they’d be the only ones) that have shaped my macro-level world view in these domains:

I have yet to see any of those convincingly debunked. However, understanding the macro trends and how things will roughly play out in the global scale and in the long term is one thing; attempting to weave that knowledge as a part of ones daily life and personal planning over shorter timeframes is a whole different ballgame, and I would say a much more difficult one. But it’s a necessary one; at least if you don’t want your kids asking why you didn’t do anything about it even though you very well knew what was going on.

I know I don’t. While there are relevant actions that can be taken with just the macro-level knowledge – like part of the reason why we’re in Australia is to provide at least two geographical options for us and our children, should either the North or the South go, so to say, south – there is more actual value in doing something that helps locally. Whether it is helping you as an individual, as a family, a community, business or even a country to prepare for the disruptions upon us and ahead of us, it’s work that should be done. Previously I’ve said I’ve “chosen” permaculture and the Transition movement, both of which are applicable at both the individual/family and community-levels, and I strive to bring business awareness & action onto these challenges and opportunities as well.

So what, exactly, should one do?

That is, of course, an impossible question to answer and not many have seriously attempted to tackle it because the answer is always “it depends“. Richard Heinberg is one of the few authors with a good macro-level grasp who has not shied away from providing some great points about about personal preparedness as well (see here). The entire Transition movement is also geared towards building resilience in communities. Permaculturalists everywhere are striving towards much of the same goals; these and other groups have networks and organizations in many areas, but it’s fair to say that in most localities they’re still far from mainstream. In Australia, we are lucky to have probably the most active permaculture networks in the world (check out the Melbourne branch here).

So after the macro trends were clear to me, I dug into resilience/’sustainable’ development with a smaller-scale view. Shelter and food form the basics of human life, so understanding how they can be accomplished in a more resilient and sustainable way was the natural next step. Many sources played a role here, including countless online sources – but let me again list my favorite books:

On Housing:

On Permaculture and agriculture:

Other resilience-related books:

All these have been tremendously valuable and interesting in their own right. I will not review these here; I invite you to read others’ reviews on Amazon instead. Doubtless there are others I have missed and equally doubtless many more that would be valuable to read – and I will continue to read around these topics and keep myself up-to-date. But as I quite knowingly (hah) suffer from the knowing-doing gap, I have to draw the line of inaction and “more study required” somewhere – and for the most part this is where it will be drawn.

Now that I consider my groundwork to be mostly done, then what? We’ll find out how the plans develop and unfold. One good thing about collapse is that even if it happens quickly in a historical perspective, it doesn’t happen literally overnight in the day-to-day lives of people. So stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath 🙂

Footnote: many systems we have today have been made fragile in the name of efficiency. The opposite of fragile, however, is antifragile, not resilience as often thought. With that in mind, we should be driving the systems – as far as possible – towards being antifragile, not merely resilient. Antifragile things benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil (up to a point). However, becoming antifragile is not always straightforward or even possible, so I see significant value in resilient systems. This is even more so because many systems we have today are not even fragile (ie. break easily under stress), they are worse than that – they are brittle, ie. they break in an unelegant and sometimes disastrous fashion. In other words, they not only fail easily, but they don’t fail gracefully. Going straight from brittle to antifragile is a tall order for most things; resilience would improve things a lot.

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Nuclear will not save the day

I am of the opinion that the world is about to face an energy crisis of somewhat epic proportions; even if the most dire impacts of the fossil fuel “peak oil” were to be postponed by rapid ramp-up of oil from unconventional sources, the extraction of those resources comes at an environmental price we shouldn’t pay – runaway climate change and eventually population collapse. What is needed is a total energy overhaul and we need it yesterday.

Now, even while increasing amounts of coal is being burned, some people argue renewables could and should save us from the energy crisis. Others, like myself, think there is no way to stave off a crisis but that renewables play a role in mitigating the migration to what will be a fundamentally lower-energy future. Still other people argue that nuclear power will play a key role in the future energy landscape – partly because it’s relatively clean, cheap, abundant, efficient, safe – and predictable in a way wind and solar may not be.

One of those people arguing for nuclear renaissance, if you will, is Rod Adams. I got into a Twitter debate with him earlier about the potential of various energy sources. He thinks nuclear is poised to be much bigger than it is today. I disagreed. So we agreed to disagree (which is already a more civilized way of dealing with differences of opinion than happens in 99% of the cases), wrote down our respective opinions and made a prediction:

Rod predicts that nuclear energy will supply 25% of the world’s electricity and more than 12% of its primary energy within the next 20 years (as measured from Jan 1st, 2013). Sami’s position is that nuclear energy will fall short of these numbers.

For reference figures we agreed to rely on IEA which currently puts the nuclear share at ~6% of world total primary energy and ~13% of the world electricity production. So Rod expects nuclear’s share to roughly double in both categories in 20 years. I don’t.

To have some skin in the game – because, as also NN Taleb has pointed out, making predictions without having any skin in the game can be anything from lame & useless to downright dangerous – we agreed that the one guesstimating the development wrong will serve the other a dinner and act as a tour guide over a week.

Let me go on record to say that if the rise of nuclear comes at the cost of (i.e. replacing) oil, gas and most of all coal, I am all for it and I hope I will be wrong with this prediction. I have no doubt nuclear energy will play an important role in the energy mix going forward; I simply do not believe it will be feasible to have nuclear energy go up that significantly in that “short” timeframe of 20 years.

I won’t go too deep into details why here, but aspects like policy environments, long plant build lead times, limited skill base, waste fuel problems, susceptibility to climate change (primarily from water being used as a coolant), surprisingly low EROEI, high initial costs and energy expenditure as well as questions on the sufficiency of fuel supply all played a role in me coming to this conclusion. A widespread roll-out of thorium reactors and other “unconventional” solutions improve the situation in theory, but I don’t believe they can or will be ramped up in the time period in question.

YMMV and I welcome opinions for or against or entirely alternative views.

Posted in Energy | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Don’t call for innovation to save the economy – call on it to save the planet

It has become a common theme in politics and business alike to emphasize the critical role innovation will play in economic growth. Businesses are told to innovate or die, that only through increasingly rapid innovation will they be able to survive and thrive. Governments, like in Finland, publicly declare that innovation is critical in returning their respective countries to the path of economic growth – which, in turn, they expect will solve most of their problems.

On the level of individual companies, there is something there. But on a system-level, like for a country let alone globally, it makes little sense – because much of innovation today reduces GDP instead of increasing it.

Wait, what?

Let’s take a step back. Some, viewed as heretics by many, have pointed out that economic growth is slowing and will eventually come to an end and that there’s little innovation per se can do to prevent that; the end of growth comes from fundamentals. Other folks have posited that the rate of innovation itself is slowing down – recently, The Economist took on some of these claims on innovation slowing down and, while raising a number of valid points, dismissed the concerns in an atypically unconvincing manner.

To get some fundamentals straight; as long as economic growth remains coupled to resource and energy usage, infinite growth is a mathematical impossibility on a finite planet. Few people deny that, but to counter it some say economic growth has decoupled from resource usage. It hasn’t. There has been some modest relative decoupling – the global energy intensity is 33% lower than it was 40 years ago – but that’s nowhere near enough. To continue economic growth in a finite world, we would need absolute decoupling – and that simply has not happened anywhere on a system-wide level, nor are there any signs of it being realistic in time frames that matter. On the contrary, factors like the decreasing EROEI (Energy Returns Over Energy Invested) of the most important energy sources can cause even the modest relative decoupling to reverse itself.

With that, let’s get back to to point that on a macro-level, innovation often has a negative impact on the economy as a whole. How is that?

Take demateralization for one, a huge innovation domain over the past decade. As the books, music and movie businesses become increasingly digital, the effect this dematerialization shift has on the economy as a whole is negative. Cutting out the middlemen like bookstores enables lower prices and better efficiency – and running the industry with fewer people and less money.

There are many more GDP-reducing innovations that everyone is – with or without understanding what their full impact is – rooting for; take working remotely for example. There is nary a person who thinks it’s a bad idea to have knowledge workers work from home or closer to their home rather than jump in their cars and waste untold hours of time and money commuting to the CBD. Remote satellite offices, spread in the suburbia, for example, would be a win-win for both employees and employers – employees would save time and money from the skipped commute, employers would get more productive people, save on expensive CBD office costs etc. But overall, the impact to the economy as a whole, could easily be negative as people would need fewer cars, there’d be less need to build roads, less office rent paid, even fewer public transport tickets etc. More telecom services required, yes, but by not nearly enough to offset all the cost savings.

In short, innovation will not be the salvation that brings unending economic growth. Nothing will.

This naturally doesn’t mean innovation is bad; innovation is about so much more than stimulating economic growth. It just means it’s important for different reasons than for what people often think. Like adapting to ongoing changes and saving the planet. We desperately need innovation in helping businesses and communities become more resilient and hopefully even antifragile. We need innovative solutions to help us reduce carbon emissions at a rapid pace; we need innovations to maintain social stability in an era of decline. And so on, ad infinitum.

Importantly, though, the innovation we now need is not all technological innovation. Technology plays a role, but what we really need is innovation that must identify, accept and integrate lessons from history and natural systems, include social aspects and dial back on the pure fragility-inducing efficiency-mantra. It is not like the most visible innovation today that focuses on some new technology, often for the sake of neomania.

Let’s innovate on things that really matter.

References & resources

Posted in Business, Random thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments