Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing style, "grand visions", and impact

It's hard for me to believe that over eight years (!) have passed since I wrote this.  Recently I've been thinking about this again.  When writing proposals, it's clearly important to articulate a Big Picture vision - why are you working on a problem, where does that problem fit in the scheme of things, and what would the consequences be if you achieved your goals?  Some people's writing styles tilt more in this direction (e.g., our team is smart and highly accomplished, and we have a grand vision of a world set free by room temperature superconductors - this path will lead us there) and others lean more toward the concrete (e.g., our team is smart and highly accomplished, and we've thought carefully about an important problem - here is what we are going to do in some detail, what the challenges are, and what it will mean).  I tend to lean toward the latter.  It's not that I lack a grand vision - I'd just rather underpromise and overperform.  Still, it's clear that this doesn't always pay dividends.  (Of course, the best of all possible worlds is to promise a grand vision and actually achieve it, but that's extremely rare.)


Anonymous said...

I suggest to read Herbert Kroemer's article "Nano-whatever: Do we really know where we are heading?" (phys. stat. sol. (a) 202, No. 6, 957–964 (2005)). It contains a interesting quote from David Mermin:"I am awaiting the day when people remember the fact that discovery does not work by deciding what you want and then discovering it."

Anonymous said...

Excellent quote by Mermin. Sadly, I feel we are instead going more and more in the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

The quote comes from N. David Mermin's article "How Not to Create Tigers" (Physics Today 52(8), 11 (1999)).

DaveC said...

I wonder if your "extremely rare" is actually never! Is there a single instance in science (not engineering) where great promises were made in a proposal and subsequently fulfilled?

It would be interesting to do a study of promises and potential impacts stated in all abstracts in the NSF, DoE and DoD abstract databases between, say, 5 and 10 years ago and look at the real end results as of today.

Douglas Natelson said...

I'm a big fan of the Mermin quote and many things about Kroemer's article (which is available in pdf form here, without Wiley's paywall.

There are separate issues, in my view. One is trying to predict with any certainty where basic research will lead. The other is how important it is to cast one's work in (at the risk of pissing off some people) grandiose terms.

My point is, I'm worried that relatively measured big-picture-context statements ("This work will shed light on one of the key unsolved problems in condensed matter physics") are considered insufficient, uninspired, and wimpy; and more hype is required to be considered a Grand Visionary ("We will then build topological quantum computers" or "Thus, this project will solve the long-standing high-Tc problem and enable ab initio creation of new high temperature superconductors", to make up a couple) whether that's at all realistic.

DaveC, you raise an interesting point, but sometimes things really do pan out, particularly when the scope of what's promised is not crazy.

Anonymous said...

see also here:

Including comments and a later post with his slides of a talk about grant writing.

Unknown said...

Hello Douglas, It's a great topic. I had read a book about this where said that “ before write become a reader.” And i like this sentences very much. Because observing power is most important part of writing (my personal opinion).
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