George Heilmeier Proposal Metrics

In the IEEE Founders Award Lecture published in The Bridge, 1992, (National Academies press) on Some reflections on innovation and invention, luminary George Heilmeier put in eight simple questions what anyone proposing a project should be able to answer.

  1. “What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  3. What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  4. Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  5. What are the risks and the payoffs?
  6. How much will it cost?
  7. How long will it take?
  8. What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?”

A proposal should be as jargon free as possible, and certainly its objective should be clear to all, experts and non experts. If you absolutely have to use jargon in the title, it must be defined in the abstract. Definitions cannot wait till the reviewer gets inside your grant. Why? Title and abstracts create the first impression. If the proposal presents the objective in a way that the reviewer feels his or her nascent interests are aligned with the proposal, a conformation bias is likely to appear – which of course, plays in your favor. It is difficult to feel good about something you do not understand!

The gap is what answers the second question. Remember that to innovate you extend, or modify what already exists (“done today”, “current practice”). Blue sky research grants exploring the pitch-dark side of research are not for everyone. You need an outstanding track record for those. The grey side is more accessible.

Novelty is expected, often in methods and approach, but with novelty comes risks, and risks are expressed in levels of confidence. That confidence is built over years of experience and a deep understanding of what your abilities are, but not only. The “You” is now plural. “You” are a team.

That you care about your project is a given, but do others care as much as you do? Who are these people? And if they do not know they should care, will you be able to show why they should, in a compelling way? Before you ask other people to get into your shoes, find out whose feet are blistered, feeling pinched, or in daily need of a shoe horn. For that, investigate, not the limitations that are there, but the consequence of these limitations.

Risk is a word rich in meaning. It spells potential trouble, but it also promises great rewards, not just payback, but payoffs – returns on the grant investment. Although it is not becoming to talk hard dollars when one is concerned with genes and quarks, it nevertheless will ultimately translate into hard currency for someone down the line. The economics of research matter to the grantor. If that payoff in dollars is further down that you would like, at least reveal the path that will get there. Build a dissemination plan to ensure long term impact.

Finally, just like students have midterm and final exams, build a solid evaluation plan to make sure you know if you are on track (or not) and meeting your specific aims, on time,  but also quantitatively and qualitatively. Good evaluation criteria are hard to come by. Learn from other PIs how they do their formative and summative evaluation plans. And remember that success is not what you say it is, but what others agree it is. So make sure you give them your success evaluation criteria before they create alternative ones you will disagree with. Deciding on these criteria is a team exercise. Involve your grant team. In the process of trying to establish these success criteria, you may discover that some of your specific aims are vague, not measurable, and require rewriting.


Author: jllebrun

General Partner at Scientific Reach - training scientists in the science of clear writing and presenting - grants/papers/posters.

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