A difference in scholarly cultures or the difference between good and bad science?

By Joern Fischer

Writing can have therapeutic benefits, I’ve been told. I’m in the process of (stupidly?) writing a grant proposal to the European Research Council, for a so-called Consolidator Grant. Chances of success are a slim 10%, and chances of my success (based on recent feedback on my draft) are more like 0.1%. I thought I’d use my personal crisis of crumbling self-esteem to reflect on what is good and bad science; and how different scholarly cultures come into this.

Here is what is happening, and then three ways of interpreting it. I circulated a draft of an interdisciplinary sustainability proposal to different people. One found the sales pitch too weak, one made a lot of constructive suggestions on how to strengthen ties to literature and existing work, and one asked for clearer methodology, stronger justification of various aspects, and clearer hypotheses. Oh, and one kind of liked it, I think, but that one is partly paid by me, so not much of an independent data point 🙂

I, incidentally, quite liked my initial draft, though I didn’t think it was “done” or “perfect”. I can now think of three alternative explanations of what’s going on:

1. Various aspects need a lot of work because they’re not good enough.

2. I might just not be a good scientist, in the sense of a scientist being a person who wants to know how x affects y, and develops theories and hypotheses to test this. I tend to be a little bit broader and more expploratory in my work than that.

3. I may have been socialised in a different scholarly culture. Someone just told me that Germany is “Taurus” and the US is “Gemini” — if you forget about the astrological blabla in that for a moment, there might be a point. How different is Australian grant writing culture from German and European grant writing culture? Given that I don’t like options 1 and 2 in my list above, I am now leaning (conveniently) towards option 3. I.e. people here don’t like my proposal much because the way grants are written in the EU is different from how it works in the US or Australia (where I was trained and “socialised”).

I’m curious about this. When I first participated in an EU grant, I thought the process was crazy — super structured, but in terms of text really thin on significance and so-what. Australia felt the opposite to me: methods could be vague, and timelines, too — as long as the idea was strong, and the track record was strong. I had never even seen a Gantt chart in Australia. In EU-land (with Germany leading the pack), my feeling is that good structure, a good timeline, a sound budget and clear hypotheses are more important than a good idea and a strong track record… am I right?

If you have experience with both research worlds — US/Australia and EU/Germany — what do you think? And what’s the UK like? (They get the bulk of EU ERC funding… so whatever they do works!)

Just pondering … would appreciate any thoughts!

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One thought on “A difference in scholarly cultures or the difference between good and bad science?

  1. If the UK is the most successful in getting these funds, then the ‘anglophone’ approach (if there is one) must work despite germanic tendencies (whether perceived or real) towards rigidity? Thanks for the good reflections, and good luck in any case, 21 days to go!

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