Last week I was almost completely absent and incommunicado. But it was for a good cause: I was invited to Brussels by the European Commission to evaluate project proposals for the Framework Programme 7, strategic objective 4.2 “Intelligent Content and Semantics”.

I was only one of more than seventy experts evaluating these proposals. The experts were divided into teams of six experts, and we had seven or eight proposals to read, and then to discuss in varying groups of three. This is the building where we were working:

During the evaluation we were held incommunicado: no phones, no network — just about 600 pages to read, evaluate and discuss. This was helped by the fact that the building had been stripped of every outside connection. But taking laptops and mobile phones was forbidden, too. No outside influence, and no taking out of information from proposals.

The procedure was very thorough. Much more thorough than most proposals, actually. I mean — if you’re going to ask for 2 to 4 million euros, the least you can do is run the spell-checker over your document. And probing through the common outer crust of badly edited, sloppy English, most proposals weren’t that good. Some were outright bad, some were decentish, but very few were really outstanding. So it’s not a bad thing that there isn’t money to fund every proposal: we were able to be very selective.

My personal notes on what makes a good proposal:

  • Edit by a native speaker, spell check
  • Give all relevant background information, evaluating experts cannot google.
  • Don’t expound on a grand vision and then forget to actually describe how that vision is going to be implemented
  • Know your area: a rehash of the state-of-the-art anno 1970 is not going to be funded
  • Be really on topic, don’t try to dress mutton as lamb, i.e, don’t recycle a proposal for a different topic with only a little bit of topicality sauce.
  • Don’t plan to build in three years what’s going to be commercially available in six months
  • Try to avoid hiding the inner emptiness of the proposal with buzzwords: it doesn’t work and is a waste of your time and the experts will see through it.

In general, it’s really, really hard to sneak anything past the experts — I was very impressed by my colleague reviewers. So, all in all, a very educating experience, and one that I hope to be in a position to repeat in the future.