Just how easy is it to successfully sell science?
I, like many other aspiring academics, am currently locked in the rounds of writing fellowship proposals that if funded will see me break free of the shackles of being somebody’s postdoc and become an independent researcher. Before I can dream about having the kudos of my own budget code, however, I must achieve the seemingly impossible and successfully sell my science. This innocuous phrase is hammered into us from the moment we brazenly set out on our PhD, but it is not until we have been broken by too many late night stints in the lab or in front of our machine that we come to realise exactly how mundane most scientific research is, and just how hard it is to make what we do sound interesting to an outsider.
Some people do strike it lucky though, and there is always the hope that you will have a ‘Eureka!’ moment that grabs the national headlines and brings with it a flood of follow-up funding. Yet for some inexplicable reason fortune always seems to favour the senior academics who haven’t brushed the dust off their labcoats in years. The rest of us are left to ponder how on earth it is possible to write a proposal that has a broad appeal whilst remaining focused on a particular topic, is suitable for a non-specialist but contains enough detail for the most insatiable of reviewers, and is novel enough that no-one has thought to do it before yet has a demonstrable chance of success. There is, I’m reliably informed, no magic answer for this, so like a door-to-door salesman, the best we can do is dress the project up nice and hope that the reviewers like what we are selling.
This does not mean that finding funding is pure lottery. There is a whole spectrum of grading criteria and methods that undoubtedly provide the most rigorous means for comparing between projects in different disciplines. Any candidate who can jump through these hoops unscathed deserves to be put through to the next round (where the hoops only get higher and come with flames). In my opinion, however, there’s one box missing from all of the assessment lists that every reviewer asks at some point: Does the science sound sexy? Discrimination acts may prevent panel members from trawling through our Facebook profiles to give us marks out of 10, but the same does not apply to the proposal that you’ve loved and cherished for so long – if it does not raise the reviewers’ interest after the first look then it gets tossed aside faster than a PhD student can eat free sandwiches.
Making science sexy (which, I should clarify, is all down to topical relevance and its ability to generate interest, and nothing to do with what font or colour theme you choose to use) is perhaps easier for some disciplines then others. Volcanoes and dinosaurs capture our imagination from a young age and are never far from the public’s attention, whilst new insights into the planets and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life get priority access to the media. It is far harder to generate the same level of excitement about what makes one soil different from another, even if there are genuine consequences for atmospheric CO2. We shouldn’t be discouraged by this, however, and should instead turn it to our advantage. Knowing what people like and are familiar with provides an easy door for them to open and take the first step towards finding a common level on which you can present your work, and at the end of the day, the next person reviewing your proposal may know nothing more about your particular brand of science than Mrs Jones from the canteen does. My next research proposal therefore won’t be about determining changes in the ionic composition of seawater – I will be finding out whether the sea tasted salty to the dinosaurs, and hopefully learning a few other things along the way.