Monday, 18 July 2016

Research proposals vs. research excellence

There is generally no reason to assume that the research you are funded to do should exactly coincide with the best possible research that you are capable of doing. Research is unpredictable by its very definition and new ideas, insights, results, etc., that change your optimal course of action, pop up all the time. This makes me wonder what is the higher imperative: Doing what you are funded to do, or doing the most excellent research you are capable of? Let's examine some reasons in favor of the former:
  1. You should do what you are funded for simply because you signed a contract to so. End of discussion. But the point is: It is actually not in the best interest of the funding agency to hold you back in case you found a more exciting topic along the way. Are you obliged to comply with the funding agency against its own interest?
  2. Your funding agency may not be interested in general research excellence but may have more narrow interests. But even in this case there could be ways to satisfy those more narrow interests outside of your original proposal. Should you grab that opportunity?
  3. Your original proposal was certified by peer-review to be productive and worthwhile, switching to a different topic is too risky. But I don't think this makes sense either: It puts the opinion of your "peers" above yours about your own very special research topic.
If I look at my two most cited papers, then I find out that both were not part of a research proposal. The first one, concerned with polyradical character in graphene nanoribbons, was not in a proposal, since we did not expect that graphene nanoribbons would show polyradical character. The second one, about a wavefunction analysis strategy for excitons, was not in the proposal for my scholarship, since I had no idea at the start of my PhD that I would actually be doing that. Do I have to somehow feel bad for writing these papers and working on the related computer codes?

Is a research proposal a "lower bound" to your research and should you modify parts of it as you go along? Or is it cast in stone? Any opinions, experience?


Noel O'Boyle said...

Depends of course, but I spoke to my mentor who suggested I contact the funding agency and update them if I changed direction from the original proposal. If you can't make an argument for why this change of direction occurred in the context of the grant, well, you really shouldn't be doing it.

Felix said...

Yes, that's a good point: I guess it always helps to be transparent and discuss things ahead of time.