3-stage rocket representing the 3 objectives of funding applications for high-risk schemes

11 – The 2 ‘Ds’ of objectives for high-risk funding schemes

In high-risk funding schemes, objective 1 should be ‘Doable’, and at least another objective ‘Dreamable’   


Research objectives (also called ‘Specific Aims’) are the central constituent of your grant application. They’re the first contact between funding panels and your project's scientific logic, and should immediately come across as clear and logical, even to non-experts.


In a previous post, we saw that for traditional funding schemes, objectives must follow a logical progression consisting of 3 'Ds' (Done, Doable, Dreamable):

  • Objective 1 should be ‘Done’ (i.e. you’ve actually already carried out much of it);
  • Objective 1 should be ‘Doable’ (i.e. feasible, incremental research);
  • Objective 3 should be ‘Dreamable’ (i.e. a bit sexy, though not too risky).

By ‘traditional’ schemes, I mean those that favor incremental (not risky) research, e.g. most national funding agencies.

However, you must adapt the 3 ‘Ds’ of objectives when you apply for high-risk funding schemes, such as the ERC fellowships in Europe, or the NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program in the US.


For such schemes, your objectives should only follow the last 2 ‘Ds’ (Doable, Dreamable). More precisely:

  • No objective should be ‘Done’;
  • Objective 1 should be ‘Doable’;
  • At least another objective should be ‘Dreamable’.

Let’s see why.



1) DOABLE: Embarking on Objective 1 should be logical and reasonable


The first stage of your rocket should avoid excessive risk,
but not so much that it looks 'Done'


In traditional funding schemes, Objective 1 should be ‘Done’, i.e. you should present preliminary data that amount to show (without saying it) that you have carried out a good part of it.

However, in high-risk / high reward projects, you should avoid presenting ‘Done’ objectives. Otherwise, panels might label your project ‘incremental’, which is the kiss of death. As an example, I have repeatedly seen that for ERC fellowships, a mention of ‘incremental’ by a single reviewer is enough to doom your project.

Often, the first objective of high-risk funding schemes consists in significantly improving on a technique, a model or an approach that is required for the rest of the project, and for which you already have some preliminary data and expertise. For example, you might have pioneered a technique and in Objective 1, propose to develop it so it can be applied on a much larger scale.


In other terms, Objective 1 should be feasible in principle based on your preliminary data, but require a fair amount of work to get the technique/approach right. This type of objective comes with a bonus for funding schemes that score the generation of innovative technologies or approaches.

Of course, there are lots of other arrangements suitable for Objective 1; the important thing is that panels should not think that it is ‘Done’ and could thus be funded by a traditional funding scheme.


Let’s move on to objectives 2 and 3…


2) DREAMABLE: At least another objective should be Dreamable


Either Objective 2 or 3, or both, should be groundbreaking


For high-risk / high reward projects, at least one objective (either the 2nd or 3rd, or both) should be ‘Dreamable’, i.e. ground-breaking. The dreamable objective(s) is the core of the project. It is the equivalent of the main payload for a rocket (with the difference that reviewers accept that it might fail, since we're talking of a high-risk scheme).

Here’s an example of commonly seen structure:

  • Objective 2 tests your central hypothesis by using the technique developed/optimized in objective 1. This objective might fail since by definition, no one knows whether a hypothesis is true; the important thing is that it is logical and reasonable based on your proof-of-concept data. It should be a ‘Dreamable’ objective, i.e. verifying your hypothesis should offer great perspectives.
  • Objective 3 builds on or explores the consequences of the hypothesis, if confirmed. It is also a ‘Dreamable’ objective.

Of course, many other structures are possible.


“Don't traditional funding schemes also accommodate a ‘Dreamable’ objective? What’s the difference with high-risk schemes then?”

The main difference is that in traditional funding schemes, the ‘Dreamable’ objective (in general objective 3) is not the project’s main payload. It is only included as a ‘cherry on top’, to make the project look a bit sexy, despite it being incremental. Reviewers tacitly understand this and only ask objective 3 to be feasible in principle, if everything goes to plan (which is rarely the case in a 3-year research project).

In contrast, in high-reward schemes, the ‘Dreamable’ objective(s) is the project’s main payload. Reviewers accept that it might fail if your hypothesis is wrong, but if it is right, they definitely expect you to deliver on the objective – they give you a lot of money for that.


Finally, there’s another difference between high-risk and traditional grant schemes…


You may include a fourth objective (e.g. validation, application, scale-up…) in high-risk schemes



Most traditional research applications are constituted of 3 objectives. We'll see why in a later post, but briefly, that’s because 3 is a kind of magic number, easy to take in and remember for reviewers, as in:

1) Design; 2) Build; 3) Test.


1) Local; 2) National; 3) International.

In contrast, since high-risk grant schemes provide large funding (>1M€ and 5 years), you may include a fourth objective, which typically consists of either a validation, an application, an implementation, or a scale-up of what you’ve developed in the first 3 objectives.


In grant schemes that only score scientific excellence rather than societal impact, such as ERC fellowships, the fourth objective tends to be a cherry on top, i.e. it is often Doable rather than Dreamable. The ground-breaking work has been done in Objectives 2 and 3, and Objective 4 is merely meant to provide an example of the power of your approach.

For such grant schemes, by no means feel that you need to add an Objective 4.


In grant schemes that require an applied component, Objective 4 can be either Doable or Dreamable.


And that's it! Let’s summarize what we’ve seen. 



Here's a summary of the 2 'Ds' of research objectives for high-risk funding schemes:

 Either Objective 2 or 3, or both, should be groundbreaking


For any question, don't hesitate to write at david _at_moretime4research.com.

Have a nice day and fruitful research


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