Learning to Speak

Several months ago, my research funding body sent out an e-mail offering travel grants for the upcoming ESOF 2016 conference (EuroScience Open Forum), held this year in Manchester, UK. Being myself a product of the transformation of academic research into a market, I applied without really knowing what I applied for. The market scarcity imposed upon academics nowadays has made us compulsive appliers. Maybe there are academics out there that can still guard against these kinds of behaviors, but I am sadly not one of them. In any case, I applied for the travel grant and, several months later, I received an e-mail announcing I will be traveling to ESFO 2016. By that point I had forgotten I had ever applied, and was happy to have finally won something in a year dominated by countless unsuccessful applications for things I really would have liked to do.

I looked up the upcoming event and realized at once it will in fact be a very interesting experience. ESOF, it turns out, is one of those massive, marketplace-like conferences, which throw together all kinds of ‘stakeholders’ in the declared hope of ‘encouraging path-breaking science’. There is so much empty jargon surrounding the presentation of the event – reread the preceding sentence and you will notice it is almost meaningless – that it is hard to talk about it in any truly meaningful way. To paraphrase Valeriu Nicolae, a veteran of EU funding schemes and their language, much of the event is expressed in EuroNarnia, a language all its own, with an increasing number of native speakers, and with the unique quality of being untranslatable (perhaps owing, precisely, to it not being a natural language). Though EuroNarnia is a language invented by and for the european institutions (Nicolae in fact uses the term to denote a world, namely that imagined by the european institutions to exist) it has successfully colonized spheres of life that have become dependent on these institutions. ESOF is a case in point; it is not organized by the European Commission, but seeing how the various agencies of the Commission have become by far the biggest funder of research in Europe, the Commission hangs over the whole event, exerting outsized pull.

I am now writing this text from Manchester, during a break in the program of ESOF. And what I want to write about is the experience of my first session at the conference, on getting funding for research ideas. By getting funding one means getting a grant through the various mechanisms of the European Commission, so it stands to reason that the session was basically an exercise in the logic of most funding applications today. There are two reasons why I want to write about this, on a blog that is dedicated to the social science of conservation. First, most academics in Europe (I imagine elsewhere too, but I prefer to talk about what I know about), whether working on conservation or pharmaceutical development, have to apply for research funding to some funding body, mostly to the European Commission. Second, the session I participated in did a wonderful job, mostly lost on the conveners, of laying bare the absurdity of funding today. To be clear, this session is but a symptom of a wider condition that I want to discuss, and it does not represent the diversity of sessions and panels at ESOF, some of which were truly interesting and thoughtful.

The session, titled From Idea to Funding, was convened by two people from London-based academic institutions that work in their respective universities for the attraction of research funding from the European Commission. They were fluent in EuroNarnia, as close as you can get to native speakers – a precondition, one might imagine, for their job, which wouldn’t exist at all were it not for the necessity of applying for funding. After presenting their respective expertise, they announced what the session will be about, namely how to craft a research proposal deemed fundable by the European Commission. Of course, every researcher present had widely different interests, so the speakers set the general context of European funding against which any single proposal is judged. Here followed a list of borderline mutually exclusive ‘targets’ and ‘goals’ that the Commission uses to judge proposals. First and foremost, a funding application should identify a clear problem, connect it to policy relevance, and demonstrate excellent research and innovation. Second, it should meet the five EU2020 targets (look them up if interested). Five minutes into the session, everyone is prepped by this context to think in the circular terms that the language of targets and goals imposes. And, with no irony whatsoever, participants are asked to think about their research question in terms of these funding requirements. In other words, for a research proposal to have a chance of being successfully funded, the researcher should first and foremost be able to speak EuroNarnia to the degree to which it will determine what the very research question that drives their investigation is.

To confirm this point, more catchphrases are introduced, chief among which is inter or multi-disciplinarity. Officially at least, every funding proposal should involve an inter-disciplinary aspect. I see how someone might initially think this is a good idea – you know, everything is connected! – but I do not see how it combines with the requirement of problem specificity. Researchers are asked to pick a very specific problem that is both, through its very specificity, in a niche, and analyzable from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Furthermore, this problem which is both specific and general enough, should always have policy relevance, a clear instance of wishful thinking dictating how hundreds of millions of euros are being spent on research in Europe. By these standards, we would have never invented the washing machine (too specific, no policy relevance), nor would we have been able to make any progress in theoretical mathematics or physics or philosophy. On an equal footing with the importance of ticking the inter-disciplinary box seemed to be ticking the ‘innovation’ box. In explaining what exactly that is, the speaker had to do some remarkable mental gymnastics, and ended up with something along the lines of ‘benefit over time’, with the important qualification that replication of previous results cannot in any case be beneficial. So in fact what innovation means is being able to represent one’s idea as both organically connected to everything, and radically new in ways that will inform policy and science in the future. See what I did there – I slipped into mild EuroNarnia. The frightening part is how easy it is for me to do that. I have applied several times for EU money and am by now, like most European researchers, highly trained in the ways of the funding application.

On the surface of it, the requirements I mentioned above are supposed to weed out vague and useless proposals. Whether willingly or not, what ends up happening is that feared vagueness is countered with actual vagueness, meaninglessness and muddy thinking used to supposedly guard against meaninglessness and muddy thinking. To make it all clear and practical, the organizers had prepared case studies for participants to try their hand at. On each table – there were a number of literally round tables with 4-6 people around them – there were two calls for proposals. One dealt with ICT innovations in old age healthcare provision, and another with safety in car crashes. Each table was supposed to come up with a research question, an impact and implementation plan (in 20 minutes), and then present it to the whole congregation to be judged as fundable or not. We were supposed to use the targets and goals discussed to both formulate research questions and judge those formulated by others. At my table, we dutifully read one of the calls – the one on old age health – and tried against our better judgments to come up with something that sounded fundable. We managed to, as did most other tables. And this is the truly incredible thing, that we managed to!

A randomly assembled group of academics came up with a project they knew nothing about and were judged by another randomly assembled group of academics with no real expertise whatsoever to have come up with a fairly good project. At my table, there was a researcher in communication, one in microbiology, one in history, one in chemistry, and myself. The other tables reflected a similarly random arrangement. And yet this bizarre assemblage led to remarkably similar results, a phenomenon interpreted by the conveners to mean that we were all really good at this. At what? At make-believe applications and projects? I found this to be unbearably depressing, because a much more reasonable interpretation is that application reviewers themselves are no better than a group of randomly selected academics with no competence is the subject matter at hand. The only thing tying us all together, random academics and selected reviewers, is a fluency in and deference to EuroNarnia.

This exercise I interpreted as a way to show everyone present that this really is just a game, something we could do in 20 minutes. The conveners emphasized in their closing remarks that a research application cannot be done quickly. Indeed, but that is not because it is complicated in the way thinking is complicated, but rather laborious in the way jumping through hoops is. There are so many targets and goals and work packages to be invented that of course it takes time. If anything, this panel demonstrated quite clearly that the basics of a research application in the current European funding environment can be hammered out in 20 minutes. It also showed that as academics in this environment, we are all already trained to think in this mind-numbing language which makes genuine thinking almost impossible (the surest sign of the impossibility of both thinking and making a funding application is the fact that mistake are not allowed – everything should cohere perfectly within the perfect sphere of the funding language).

This session was one of the most comically alienating experiences I have ever had. I think a lot of academics that recognize some of their own thoughts in what I wrote wager that they can build an academic career without falling to deep into EuroNarnia – without becoming true believers. I hope that I can preserve the curiosity and passion that drives research despite the mutilation that I subject my ideas to in a research proposal of this kind. I entertain this thought every time I contemplate my career options. Whether it is at all possible to have my cake and eat it too, or just another instance of wishful thinking, remains to be seen.

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